The deaths of 72 workers in a fire that gutted a footwear factory in Valenzuela City has exposed abusive conditions for millions of poor and desperate laborers across the nation.
The tragedy, in a long row of gated factories in an industrial hub in the northern end of Metro Manila on Wednesday, was one of the country’s deadliest workplace accidents.
The House of Representatives on Friday announced the holding of a congressional inquiry into the tragedy as 69 remains were temporarily interred at the city’s public cemetery.
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz also on Friday described the owners of the footwear factory as “immoral,” saying they illegally exploited their workers.
Baldoz said the owners of Kentex Manufacturing had broken employment laws that were meant to guarantee minimum salaries, pensions and social security.
“They are not only illegal, they are immoral. Thes eemployers, they don’t have a sense of social responsibility,” Baldoz told Agence France-Presse.
The 72 workers died when the fire tore through Kentex’s two-story factory, which produced cheap sandals and slippers for the local market, in an industrial district in Valenzuela City.
A welding job that was being carried out close to inflammable chemicals ignited the fire, according to authorities.
Nearly all of those killed were trapped on the second floor of the factory, with steel bars over windows ensuring they could not escape.
The company had provided no fire safety training to its employees, according to survivors of the blaze, as well as victims’ relatives and unions.
They also accused the company of paying salaries well below minimum wage, as well as withholding pensions, health benefits and other forms of social security.
“The deaths should serve as a wake-up call for businessmen to stop these abuses… they should give their employees dignity,” Baldoz said.
She confirmed that the company had used a “fly-by-night sub-contractor” to hire casual workers, with the middleman agency not paying required salaries and benefits.
“We will not accept their excuse,” Baldoz said.
After inspecting the site on Thursday, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd hit out at the company’s safety standards, stating that the welding job should never have been done close to inflammable chemicals.
He pledged to investigate why 69 of the 72 people killed had been trapped on the second floor behind steel bar-enclosed windows and with no viable fire exit.
Labor union leaders have also accused the government of being partly responsible for failing to carry out proper inspections that would ensure such companies were following labor laws.
About 50 labor union activists picketed the burned Kentex factory also on Friday, criticizing the authorities and the factory management.
The exploitation of the workers at the factory, where lax safety standards caused the fire, is anything but unusual across the Philippines.
The workers, who produced cheap sandals and slippers for the domestic market, were paid well below the minimum wage of 481 pesos a day and were denied a host of legally mandated benefits, survivors of the blaze and victims’ relatives told reporters.
They said the workers were forced to toil 12-hour days, seven days a week without overtime, had legally-required social security and health insurance payments withheld and were forced to constantly inhale foul-smelling chemicals.
“This is a very common situation. This is just one factory but it represents the… kind of factories in this country,” Alan Tanjusay, spokesman for the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, said.
Tanjusay noted that compliance with safety standards was “really bad” not just in factories, but also construction sites where workers often do not wear protective clothing.
The Philippines has very strong labor laws and a vocal union movement but the massive numbers of impoverished people and endemic corruption throughout society are two key factors that allow workers’ exploitation to flourish.
Roughly one quarter of the nation’s 100 million people live in poverty, which is defined as surviving on about one dollar a day, according to government data.
High school dropouts desperate to support relatives are particularly easy prey, according to Baldoz.
“They have no regular jobs. When someone offers them a job, they grab it,” she said.
Baldoz added that President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s administration, which has been in power for five years, had worked hard to improve labor conditions.
She cited the closing down of 10,000 of an estimated 15,000 illegal employment agencies.
Those agencies are an integral part of the exploitation chain because they hire workers as casuals, allowing companies to turn a blind eye to exploitation such as withholding pensions and paying below the minimum wage.
Baldoz also pointed to the establishment of arbitration courts that resolve labor disputes in as little as 30 days.
But she said factory owners and labor unions were responsible for ensuring that these safety laws were observed.
‘Wolves guarding sheep’
This voluntary compliance is one of the big problems, according to the Partido Manggagawa.
“Voluntary compliance and self-assessment means that the government is asking the wolf to guard the sheep. No wonder the sheep get slaughtered,” party chairman Renato Magtubo said.
Valenzuela City, the industrial district where the fire occurred, promotes itself as a “premier business and industrial center.”
But workers at surrounding factories—which manufacture products such as cosmetics, plastics, paper plates and small appliances—recounted similar tales of exploitation as those at the Kentex factory.
They emerged from garrison-like compounds, surrounded by towering fences topped with barbed wire and with security guards patrolling the perimeter, with stories of long hours for little pay.
A common theme was being paid well below the minimum wage.
“I don’t have enough for food and other expenses. Sometimes, I borrow money,” said one worker aged 36 who moved to Manila from Masbate province after dropping out of high school in the 1990s.
Only three of the 72 remains recovered from the fire scene had been identified as of Friday, authorities said.
DNA samples were collected from the victims’ bodies and from the family and kin of the missing workers.
Forensic experts will cross-match the samples to determine the identity of the victims.
A total of 21 bodies were interred at the Arkong Bato public cemetery on Thursday evening while 48 were buried on Friday afternoon, according to Marivic Doon of the Sabino Funeral Homes.
A funeral Mass was held also on Friday before the mass burial.
Mark Apostol, 25, was close to tears as he gazed at the row of white coffins.
His sister, Melissa, was among those believed to have been killed in the fire.
“Dapat lang po silang managot sa dami ng namatay [Somebody should answer for this as so many people lost their lives],” he said.
Paula Madiclong was still in a state of shock but still attended the mass funeral.
She lost three of her family members in the fire—her mother Marietta, elder sister Joanna and an aunt, Myrna. All three worked at Kentex.
Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian said arson investigators would likely look into the seeming lack of fire exits at the second floor and its uneven ratio to the number of workers there.
“I think this is what our fire marshals are zeroing on in. How many workers were inside at the time vis-à-vis the number of staircases and exits. The occupational permit may have indicated that the area is just good for 20 or so number of people, but the place was still packed with more than its rated capacity,” he told a television news program in Filipino.
The mayor added, “Visually, if you go there, the building still stands. The fact that it still stands despite being gutted means it’s still structurally sound. But the bone of contention is whether there were enough fire exits. I also personally saw yesterday [Wednesday] that the windows were fenced off, which is against the Fire Code. But I will let the Bureau of Fire Protection’s investigation rule that with actuality.”
Fire safety clearance racket
A source of The Manila Times at the Bureau of Fire Protection claimed that issuance of Fire Safety Inspection Certificate (FSIC) is the most abused, money-making scheme in the agency.
Moreover, the source said, overstaying fire officials are also to blame for laxity in enforcement of fire safety regulations.
“The familiarity of fire marshals in their locality makes them prone to commit extortion or ask for grease money in exchange for the inspection-less issuance of fire safety clearances,” he added.
The source said the racket could amount to millions of pesos that go into the pockets of corrupt fire officers.
“A boarding house with 20 rooms for example in Metro Manila must shell around P200,000 for the SFIC to be issued and around P30,000 to P50,000 for the annual renewal. This is only for the grease money compared to a much lower legal or regulated fees,” he added.
The practice has been going on for years now even if the Fire Code of the Philippines had been updated, the source said.
The House of Representatives also on Friday announced the holding of a congressional inquiry into the fire tragedy.
Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles, chairman of the House Committee on Labor and Employment, said the inquiry would be done to in aid of deliberations being undertaken on four pending measures on occupational safety.
The four pending measures are House Bill 2226, which seeks to criminalize non-compliance with occupational safety and health standards, authored by Diwa party-list Rep. Emmeline Aglipay Villar; HB 2471, filed by Marikina City (Metro Manila) Rep. Marcelino Teodoro, which seeks to provide uniform warnings on personal protective equipment for occupational use; HB 4584, authored by Nograles, which proposes institutionalization of occupational health and safety of workers in the construction industry; and HB 4635, filed by Gabriela party-list Rep. Emmi De Jesus, which seeks to impose strict compliance with the Labor Code through mandatory inspection and providing penalties for violations of its occupational safety and health provisions.