Dubbed the deadliest factory fire in Philippine history, last May 13’s Kentex Manufacturing Incorporated slipper factory fire in Valenzuela City that took the lives of 72 workers who were trapped in the two-story building highlights the criminal labor standards under the Noynoy Aquino government.
An independent fact-finding team led by the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD), and the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) said that the fire began in the ground floor after welding sparks from the factory gate, which was being repaired, ignited highly flammable and improperly stored chemicals placed on the floor. The hazardous materials lacked proper labels and workers were not informed about the danger.
Kentex Manufacturing Incorporated employs 200-300 workers in the production of rubber slippers, including “Havanas”, an imitation of the flip-flops brand Havaianas. Even though the government certified Kentex’s full compliance with safety standards in 2014, the factory had no fire alarms, no sprinklers, and no fire exits. “Workers who had been working for years in Kentex have not experienced any fire and safety drill conducted by the management,” said the fact-finding team.
With the gate for trucks locked, employees only had access to a single exit at the time of the fire. Even the windows were blocked by metal grills and chicken wire—put in place to prevent workers from stealing products made inside the factory. “Of the 72 dead bodies, 69 were retrieved on the second floor. Thus majority of the dead workers were trapped in the second floor. Witnesses even saw the workers on the second floor shouting, but they couldn’t open the windows, they couldn’t escape because of the grills,” said IOHSAD advocacy officer Nadia de Leon.
“The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has a big responsibility for the tragedy. This is especially because Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldozadmitted that their office’s inspection of Kentex eight months ago had the result of the factory’s being compliant with safety standards. This shows how unreliable and questionable their system of inspecting factories is,” added de Leon.
In fact, the Kentex fire is but the latest in a series of workplace fires and related incidents that have claimed the lives of many workers since 2010, Journalist Tonyo Cruz points out:
- The January 2015 collapse of a warehouse wall in Guiguinto, Bulacan, killed 12 workers.
- The May 2014 fire at an illegal electronics warehouse in Pasay City killed eight workers who’d been locked up by owners.
- The May 2012 fire at the Novo Jeans store’s living quarters in Butuan City that left 17 workers dead.
- The May 2011 Eton Greenbelt Residences incident, where 11 workers fell to their deaths.
The Kentex fire also raised concerns not only about health and safety conditions in factories across the country, but also the problems of contractualization and low wages. The majority of Kentex’s workers, for example, are considered independent contractors—they become “casual” employees only after 10 years on the job, and attain “regular” worker status only after a protracted 20 years.
Workers, furthermore, revealed to the fact-finding team that they received a daily wage of Php 202 to P220, depending on their years on the job, which is way below the P466 ($11) daily minimum wage for private-sector workers in the National Capital Region. There are also workers hired on a “pakyawan” or piece-rate basis who work for 12 hours a day with no formal contracts.
For many, the Aquino government’s criminal labor standards and President Aquino’s silence in the wake of the tragedy clearly show where his administration’s loyalties are — to the big capitalists and landlords rather than the common people. The sorry condition of the Kentex workers and many other toiling Filipinos who are forced to accept unjust working conditions just to survive is an indictment of Aquino’s empty campaign promise to eliminate corruption and poverty.
Note: I wrote this article for thepoc.net