Justice for the 72 workers killed at the Kentex fire

Workers in the Philippines have a myriad of problems and struggles to overcome: low or unstable wages, meagre or unreliable benefits, abusive or insensitive employers or management, no job security or contracts, anti-worker and anti-union laws and policies, union-busting, unjust terms and conditions of employment, which may include inhumane working environment or a workplace that blatantly violates the mandated occupational safety and health standards (OSHS).

Which brings us to yet another horrible and senseless industrial tragedy on 13 May, that could have been prevented if the OSHS and other related measures were strictly implemented, regularly reviewed and constantly drilled.

The death toll in the seven-hour fire that engulfed the footwear factory of Kentex Manufacturing Inc.,in Valenzuela, a northern suburb of Manila, has reached 72.

Central to the arson investigation should be the widely perceived trigger of the blaze: why did the company recklessly and stupidly allow a welding job on the front door, which generates sparks, near a place where combustible chemicals were stored and which could easily ignite?

Likewise, were the two front entrance and back doors, as well as the supposed fire exits, sufficient enough and appropriately located?

And considering the number of workers trapped on the factory’s second floor, was there any possible violation of the building’s required occupancy limit?

One worker, employed at the factory for five years, admitted that he had “never been involved in a fire drill, ever.”

Fire safety regulations, part of the broader OSHS, are in fact largely ignored by many companies in the country.


“Abominable culture of indifference”

The national labour centre Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (SENTRO) extends its deepest sympathy and condolences, as well as our firm solidarity, to the families and loved ones of all the workers who perished and were injured in the Kentex fire.

The lives and the scathing injuries of the Kentex workers are the heavy price for the complete breakdown of the government’s labour laws enforcement and for the employers’ patent disregard of the mandatory laws on wages, social protection benefits and basic workplace safety guidelines.

It depicts the abominable culture of indifference among many public servants ˗ including President Aquino himself who has yet to pay his respects to all those who perished ˗ and profit-oriented employers to enforce existing guidelines that uphold workers’ basic rights and well-being.

SENTRO and its allies in the trade union movement, especially the NAGKAISA labour coalition, strongly call on the national and local governments to fully enforce the OSHS and other related laws and regulations, and to resolutely punish all violators, including those in the absolutely revolting incident of Kentex.

We also call on Rosalinda Baldoz, Secretary of the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE), to establish a tripartite “Task Force Valenzuela” (TFV), which will undertake unannounced inspections of factories and plants in the city of Valenzuela in order to crack down on sweatshops.

In the light of the tragedy that befell our fellow workers in Kentex, we believe that it now becomes imperative to verify employers’ compliance with all existing labour laws and safety standards, fire and building structure standards and to determine compliance with all other city requirements for the issuance of business permits and operational licenses.

Justice must not just be for the Kentex victims and their families but also for the countless workers nationwide who work under the same pakyawan system (piecework basis) or through unregistered and unregulated labour manning agencies.

These workers are deployed without any statutory benefits, least of all minimum wages, into firetraps where their lives are sacrificed on the altar of profits.

We strongly believe that the immoral and illegal activities of the Kentex owners are actually widespread in Valenzuela, and the inspections should begin in the factory neighbourhood where the fire occurred and with those firms also serviced by unregistered manning agencies.

The inspections should also target those firms that undertook voluntary self-assessments of their labour standards. It is never the best way to enforce safety by relying on the mere “say-so” of very self-interested employers and factory owners.

This proposed crackdown in Valenzuela will have national resonance and will hopefully, by making an example of those who will be caught, ensure that labour standards compliance will be more honoured.

We urge the government to seize the historical opportunity to render justice, not just for the Kentex workers, but to finally break the widespread culture and practice of corporate irresponsibility that made the loss of these workers’ lives not just immoral but evil and criminal.