“Employers must not only pay administrative fines and sanctions, they must also face criminal liabilities for any death or injury caused by their violation of occupational health and safety standards.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Fatal accidents in construction sites in the Philippines are bound to keep happening if the government does not change its way of (not) ensuring occupational health and safety standards (OHS). This is the warning aired by various non-government groups advocating for workers’ rights including occupational health and safety.
After another accident in a construction site at the new stretch of highrise buildings at Bonifacio Global City has killed two workers and injured eight recently, labor rights advocates lamented that conditions in the construction industry, which make workers vulnerable to fatal or disabling accidents, have not changed.
“Existing regulations on employers’ compliance to occupational health and safety standards must be tightened,” Arman Hernando, head of the documentation program of the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, said in a statement. The calls are for the government to reverse its increased leaning on deregulation or nearly hands-off policies and to strictly enforce labor standards instead.
In support of the proposed bill filed in Congress by Gabriela Women Partylist, a day before the construction site accident in Bonifacio Global City, Hernando reiterated the need to make non-compliance to worker safety standards a crime against workers.
“Employers must not only pay administrative fines and sanctions, they must also face criminal liabilities for any death or injury caused by their violation of OHS standards,” Hernando said.
Labor NGO’s have been saying the government through the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has much to answer for in the spate of deaths due to accidents in construction sites in the country. Statements from non-government groups such as CTUHR and the Institute for Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) and from the labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno put the blame on accident-prone work sites to DOLE Department Orders 115-A and 57-04, which allow companies with 200 or more workers to self-assess their compliance with OHS standards.
The labor advocates believe this is one of the reasons why companies could easily ignore safety procedures and guidelines in the workplace. They said the department orders also relieve the government of responsibility in ensuring and protecting workers’ safety in the workplace.
Before the said department orders were issued, the labor department was clearly tasked to conduct inspection of workplaces and establishments and evaluate its adherence to prescribed minimum health and safety standards.
Always, its yearly reports chart statistics in violations, and complaints of lack of labor inspectors and enforcement. Unfortunately, the labor department seemed to have passed the task instead to concerned companies.
Labor lawyer Remigio Saladero said it is doubtful whether an establishment would self-assess itself as a failure.
In fact, like in the experience of the Keppel shipyard in Subic where workers also died in workplace accidents, the company assessment showed it had graded itself as passed in ensuring the minimum health and safety standard requirements.
Under Pres. Noynoy Aquino, the following deaths in the construction sector occurred, according to KMU:
>> 10 workers died in the construction site of Eton Residences in Makati City in January 27, 2011.
>> Five workers died in the construction of a power plant in Pilila, Rizal last February 3, 2013.
>> 12 people died in the construction of a warehouse in Guiguinto, Bulacan in January 21, 2015.
The actual figures may be higher because as some construction workers interviewed by Bulatlat.com previously said, construction companies typically hushed down the incidences of accidental deaths.
In the BGC, some construction workers once told Bulatlat.com how it was hard for them to enter neighboring construction sites. These being private, it were typically guarded especially when an accident had occurred. They recalled experiences of being made to continue work when a co-worker lay dead on the ground from a fatal fall. The construction workers said the dead were simply covered up by tarpaulin until such time the body could be taken out without attracting attention.
“Without imposing strict penalties for violators of health and safety standards, the government is indirectly sending a go-ahead signal to the employers to disregard workers’ safety,” the IOHSAD said in a statement.
Last February 3, a day before the accident in Taguig, the House of Representatives Committee on Labor and Employment convened a technical working group (TWG) to consolidate House bills concerning occupational health and safety. One of the issues discussed in the TWG was the implementation of stricter penalties to employers who commit OHS violations.
Progressive labor advocates give full support to HB 4635 or Workers Safety and Health Inspection and Employers Liability Decree (Worker’s SHIELD) filed by Rep. Emmi De Jesus and Rep Luzviminda Ilagan of Gabriela Women’s Party.
Its main provision is the criminalization of OHS violations to push the companies’ strict compliance with health and safety laws. Employers who are proven guilty will not only pay penalties to the state but will be charged criminally based on the gravity of the violation.
HB 4635 authored by Gabriela imposes mandatory inspection on OHS compliance of all establishments regardless of place and number of workers. The bill seeks to disallow any form of voluntary compliance or employer-discretion based adherence to OHS standards.
“The DOLE should be given a clear directive that it must not abandon its mandate to ensure employees protection in exchange for industrial harmony and unimpeded business undertaking,” Hernando of CTUHR said.
But workplace accidents are not just a result of neglect or complacency in implementing safety standards. According to CTUHR and KMU, accidents are basically traceable to companies’ drive to increase profits by cutting costs.
“Implementing OHS standards entail costs to companies as workers need to be provided with personal protective equipment and enough hours of rest or break-time. The workplace should also have proper safety installations, which can be costly,” said Hernando. He noted that due to companies’ efforts to further lower costs, including labor and that of added facilities, workers safety is often compromised and neglected.
“For instance, principal developers in the case of construction firms employ several layers of subcontracting agencies to evade direct employer responsibility to workers. At the same time, these subcontractors squeeze more profit from contract workers who are made to work for long hours with only minimum safety protection, if any,” Hernando explained.
Construction considered an economic driver, but workers are neglected
The KMU said successive governments have promoted the construction sector but refused to give construction workers the necessary protection in the form of mandatory inspection of adherence to health and safety standards, criminalization of violations of such standards, and defense of workers’ right to unionize.
“The construction sector has always been most dangerous to workers, and the government’s refusal to uphold occupational health and safety standards is most visible there. We demand that our construction workers, who belong to the poorest of the poor, be protected,” said Elmer “Bong” Labog, chairperson of KMU.
Taking note of longtime construction workers whose efforts to form a union were met with illegal dismissals, Labog concluded, too, that “Apart from occupational health and safety standards, workers’ basic rights are also wantonly violated in the construction sector.”
He cites data of how many construction workers are receiving lower then minimum wages, how they are “robbed of benefits,” how they remain contractuals and not regularized, and how they are quickly being fired when they try to form unions.”
Labog cited as example the case of the 98 workers of Golden Fortune Techno Built, Inc., a company owned by Dominador Yap. The workers were illegally dismissed from work last December 2014 after they tried to form a union.
In an interview, construction workers from Golden Fortune said they have worked with the company in various projects, some of which were at the BGC, and many have been with the company for years, but they were not considered as regulars.
Last year, after they managed to register their newly formed union with the DOLE, batches of them began to be fired and not paid their pending salaries.
The Golden Fortune techno workers – who were receiving wages below the P466 minimum in Metro Manila, who reported “being robbed” of their Social Security System and PhilHealth benefits, and were not given wages on time – are currently holding a picket-protest at the Muelle dela Industria corner Prensa Street and Numancia Street in Binondo, Manila.
“The existence of genuine workers’ unions in the construction sector would definitely boost observance of occupational health and safety standards,” Labog said in a statement. He described it as revolting “that the government is colluding with big capitalists in preventing workers from forming their unions.”
Among employed person in 2014, some 6.6-percent are in construction, next to barely changing 8.3-percent employed in manufacturing, according to government data. The bulk of employed Filipinos are in agriculture and services (84.1-percent in 2014), and only 15.9-percent are in industry, of which only those in construction have registered increases over the years.
Data also showed that 1.22 million employed in industry (where construction and manufacturing are categorized) still wanted to work more, even if more than half of them already have fulltime jobs.