Veronica Joy M. Polidario
One of the hottest news that has struck the nation, gained flames of questions, signified the ambiguity of labor policies and served as a clear representation of the on-going turmoil in the lives of Filipino workers ‒ the Kentex fire tragedy. Right after the Fire Prevention Month which is due every March, a 7-hour factory blaze at Valenzuela City on May 13, 2015 cost 74 lives. Considering that it happened subsequent to the commemoration of Labor Day (May 1) which is meant to celebrate the significant contributions of Filipino workers to national development, the disaster just lit up issues of labor conflict. Kentex fire was not just about an ‘accident’, it was trying to expose the unfavorable system of labor in the country.
According to authorities, the fire started when sparks from a welder’s tool landed in unlabelled flammable chemicals. The government ordered payments to more while endorsing criminal charges against the owners. A number of workers’ families signed settlements with owners of the factory while at least half of them chose to take legal actions against the owners and government department that issued the factory’s permit. With this, various issues from the tragedy continuously unravel. Survivors and witnesses described how the fire had trapped them on the second floor, how they tried to break through the grilles that covered the windows, begging, dreadfully for help. Larger issues have been thrown into fuss as public and the authorities carry on digging up the questionable sides of the case.
Permit-granting query: “How did the factory manage to acquire its business permit from the local government or its certificate of compliance from Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE)? The Bureau of Fire and Protection had not issued fire permit to the factory owners in 2014 or 2015, and violations noted in their reports included a failure to service the fire extinguishers and a lack of fire drills, alarm systems and sprinkler systems.” (Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/jul/20/the-inside-story-of-the-kentex-disaster-74-workers-died-but-no-one-is-in-prison)
The non-government Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) said in a statement that these violations were evidenced by the appearance of the burnt structure and the accounts of surviving workers. Together with them in a mission were the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research and the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).
According to IOHSAD, Kentex committed the following violations which caused the death of 74 people: (1) “The management of Kentex Manufacturing did not comply with major provisions of Rule 1940 or the Fire Protection and Control Rule 1940 of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards of 1989.”
IOHSAD and other labor advocates found out that there were no proper fire exits in the building, a clear violation of the provisions of Rule 1943.03 which states:
– “At least two exits shall be provided in every floor and basement of every workplace capable of clearing the work area in five (5) minutes,” and
– “On every floor, except the ground floor, one of the exits shall lead to an inside stairway or a smokeproof tower, while the other exits shall lead to inside stairways, smoke-proof towers or horizontal exits.”
(2) Survivors of the factory fire said containers of newly-delivered flammable chemicals (Superseal) were not stored properly. These were also placed near where workers were welding steel doors, a clear violation of the provisions of Rule 1943.07 on storage which says:
– “Significant quantities of commodities with fire hazards greater than ordinary combustible commodities shall be separated from the main bulk by fire walls.”
(3) Kentex workers said no fire drills were done in the workplace in the last few years, a clear violation of Rule 1948.03:
– “Fire-exit drills shall be conducted at least twice a year to maintain an orderly evacuation of buildings, unless the local fire department requires a higher frequency of fire drills.”
Aside from poor occupational safety and health standards, Kentex also portrayed the typical problems concerning the working conditions of their employees. This is not a new issue; for it has been magnified as a classic labor issue of different abuses by company owners and employers; specifically, it is another case of sweatshop.
Moreover, Berberoglu (2001) stated that because of a recalcitrant shop culture of class conflict, skilled craft workers often thwarted attempts by their employers to produce in a manner and pace that maximized output and minimized costs.
According to the collected data of Justice for Kentex Workers Alliance, More than 65% of Kentex’s workforce was hired on a casual basis, with contracts only being awarded after 20 years‒ a problem across the country, campaigners pointed out.
Philippine NGOs indicated that the government has encouraged poor working conditions by bringing in legislation such as the 2013 Labor Laws Compliance System which replaced the more enforcement-heavy Labor Standards Enforcement Framework in workplace inspection.
The wage set at the factory was below the P481 national minimum wage and experience constant job insecurity. One of the workers on the set wage said, “We work for 12 hours – for eight hours we get 202 pesos (approx £2.88) and then the next four we get 49 pesos for each hour. We have no benefits but the company deducts our supposed benefits from our wages. We know because of the payslips that there is deduction but we don’t receive those benefits,” -Jobert Canino.
Reports showed that the workers were also regularly exposed to chemicals harmful to their health but were denied health benefits and pensions.
“Emmanuel Madiclom recounted that just like most employees, his wife Beth would often complain of the smell and the heat when she first started working in Kentex. They eventually got used to the environment. Despite 15 years of service, Madiclom claimed that his wife never received legally-prescribed workers’ benefits such as an assured minimum wage, Social Security System and PhilHealth benefits, holiday pay, 13th month pay, medical leave, and other benefits.” (Retrieved from: http://www.rappler.com)
May 15, 2015 ‒ in a forum organized by factory workers, Kentex lawyer Renato Paraiso told survivors and the families of the victims and casualties that they would give them money – the due salary on the 15th of the month plus a few days’ work and overtime. He asked the people to be patient in waiting other benefits due them under the law, as Kentex administrative and accounting office also burnt company records.
Mr. Ronald Holmes, author of “Never Shall the Two Meet? A Synthesis of the Discussion of Panel on Industrial/Labor Conflict” reiterated on his book that, on the side of the government, organized labor suggested that the current administration is inclined at preserving jobs or maintain or even reduce unemployment figures rather than improving the levels of compensation through wage hikes or protection of workers’ fundamental rights, and through lifting/ repeal of the orders that impinge on some entitlements.
Links of other labor conflict-related cases sprouted again as the said tragedy has given both light and darkness to people; first, the downside of the case which pertains to Kentex’s violation to labor code and other policies that leads to higher level of disputes. Secondly, it has a tiny light and a piece of hope‒ so the government will look at the Kentex fire tragedy as an ‘eye opener’ and take ‘real actions’ on deadly matters.
The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines – Article XIII Section 3 states that: “The State shall afford full protection to labor, local and overseas, organized and unorganized, and promote full employment and equality of employment opportunities for all.
It shall guarantee the rights of all workers to self-organization, collective bargaining and negotiations, and peaceful concerted activities, including the right to strike in accordance with law. They shall be entitled to security of tenure, humane conditions of work, and a living wage. They shall also participate in policy and decision-making processes affecting their rights and benefits as may be provided by law.”
After witnessing the fire tragedy, Malacañang said it will support the proposals to criminalize violations of fire and building codes and occupational safety standards, “We reiterate the strong stand taken by the government through the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) on the need to criminalize non-compliance with laws and regulations pertaining to occupational safety and health,” Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said.
Department of Labor and Employment has called on Congress “to seriously see our plea for the enactment of these measures in a positive light, and that is for the ultimate welfare and protection of our workers and the delivery of labor justice by punishing heartless employers.”
According to the book Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Philippines, ‘In general, the issues of conflict between labor and management that have either been mitigated or abetted by government’s action or inaction could be rooted in the desire of each sector ‒the employees and employers‒ to get a higher return to their involvement in the production process. The return could not simply be reduced to the employees’ income or the employers’ profit, but the political power, or at least the sense of self-worth that such brings to either both parties as they participate in the political and social life of the nation.’
However, the Ombudsman has ordered the dismissal of Valenzuela City Mayor Rexlon “Rex” Gatchalian and 6 others over the fire tragedy that claimed at least 74 lives when blaze hit footwear factory Kentex Manufacturing Corporation in May last year. But the Valenzuela mayor said on March 5, that he was able to secure a temporary restraining order (TRO) from the Court of Appeals.
In its resolution, the Ombudsman found the following guilty of grave misconduct and gross neglect of duty: Valenzuela Mayor Rexlon Gatchalian, Valenzuela Business Permit and Licensing Office (BPLO) Officer-in-Charge Renchie May Padayao, BPLO Licensing Officer IV Eduardo Carreon, Valenzuela City Fire Marshal F/Superintendent Mel Jose Lagan, Fire Safety Chief F/Senior Inspector Edgrover Oculam, Fire Safety Inspector SF02 Rolando Avendan, and Fire officer Ramon Maderazo. The 7 were ordered dismissed from service, with accessory penalties of forfeiture of benefits and privileges and perpetual disqualification from holding public office.
Sta. Maria, Madelene A. “Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Philippines”
Holmes, Ronald “Never Shall the Two Meet? A Synthesis of the Discussion of Panel on Industrial/Labor Conflict”
Berberoglu, Berch “Labor and Capital in the Age of Globalization: The Labor Process and the Changing Nature of Work in the Global Economy”
“Rule 1940 or the Fire Protection and Control Rule 1940 of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards of 1989”
“The 1987 Philippine Constitution”
The inside story of the Kentex disaster: ’74 workers died but no one is in prison’ http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/jul/20/the-inside-story-of-the-kentex-disaster-74-workers-died-but-no-one-is-in-prison
“Kentex’s many violations caused biggest factory fire casualty – NGOs” by Marya Salamat, Bulatlat.com, http://www.manilatimes.net/kentexs-many-violations-caused-biggest-factory-fire-casualty-ngos/184119/
“Valenzuela fire death trap highlights sweatshop abuses” http://www.rappler.com