The workers had nowhere to jump to, and they also could not have escaped the building because of the steel windows, the thick glass, and a layer of ‘chicken’ wire.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — Working for a living became deadly to workers of Kentex manufacturing Corp. in Valenzuela on Wednesday, May 13. A fire broke out at the factory and it took seven hours before it was put down. Many of the workers were feared to have been trapped inside.
“They’re mostly skulls and bones now, with nary a part of flesh left on their bones,” Dionisio Candido, 62, told a radio-TV reporter of DZMM in Filipino after he was seen coming out of the still smoking burnt factory early morning of May 14, a day after the fire.
Candido has four relatives including a granddaughter working at the factory when it was gutted, one is 19 years old and the rest are in their twenties. He said they were working under a piece-rate payment system, and many were women.
He expressed fears that from the looks of it, “there is no way the dead can be identified.”
From what he saw, they are now just piles of charred skulls and bones, a mass of skeletons by the windows at the second floor of Kentex factory.
“Not a single worker should die in the workplace, even when a fire breaks out,” the labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno said in a statement May 14. The group demanded justice for the fire victims.
‘Even cats can’t go out’
The Valenzuela City government released a factsheet on Wednesday, which reported that 68 workers of Kentex were missing. By midday Thursday, it said 45 were dead, 26 remained unaccounted for in the slipper factory. By evening the number of the dead has reached 72.
The number of workers likely trapped inside the factory, as reported by the local government, is just an estimate it culled from the relatives. (Update: As of May 15, as firefighters and rescuers are combing the gutted building for more bodies and hauling out sacks of ashes, Kentex would not say how many workers exactly were in the factory on May 13. In a live radio interview morning of May 15, its lawyer distinguishes between their workers and the agency-hired workers which he cannot say how many.)
Mayor Rex Gatchalian of Valenzuela City described the fire as the biggest that ever hit the city in terms of casualties.
But such big number of casualties could have been avoided. The Kilusang Mayo Uno said the number of workers who died and went missing are clear indicators that occupational health and safety standards have been violated by the capitalists of Kentex. Kentex Manufacturing Corp. is said to be owned by a businessman named Ong King Guan. The labor center demanded immediate prosecution for this crime.
Reports said more bodies were trapped at the second floor but firefighters were not able yet to investigate as the weakened structure is close to collapsing. Candido who managed to enter the gutted building told a DZMM reporter that he saw four piles of bones and skulls at the second floor near the windows.
These workers at the second floor were mostly agency-hired piece-raters. Since the fire started at the ground floor near the stairs, the other available exit was on the second floor at the back end of the building, said Joseph Pausal of Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD), member of pro-labor institutions and labor groups who conducted a fact-finding mission at the burned factory on May 14.
But aside from the problem of this exit being tight close to a wall, survivors said the exit was locked. Pausal said the survivors cannot say if the guards had opened it at one point during the fire.
Candido said the workers had nowhere to jump to, plus they also could not have escaped the building. He said there were the steel windows, the thick glass, and a layer of chicken wire preventing the fire victims’ escape. “Even cats can’t go out,” he said.
From his description, the windows at the back of the factory building could have made rescue possible. He said the workers could have jumped from that window because from there, they could land straight into a mountain of sand in the neighboring factory. Candido said they had asked permission to do that and they also suggested that the windows of the burning building, where people were at the time screaming for help, be cracked open. But he said they were not allowed to do that.
The same story was shared by other survivors to the members of fact-finding mission by pro-labor institutions on May 14. A survivor told them they had tried to use the buck hoe of the neighboring factory to respond to the trapped workers whose hands were frantically waving for help then from the windows of the burning building. But the survivor said the owner forbade them to continue.
The fire apparently started when the blowing agent being used for welding the factory’s rollup gate hit and ignited the chemicals used in manufacturing rubber slippers. A survivor said the welder was working at the second floor near the stairs, the combustible chemicals were at the ground floor beneath him. The fire refused to be contained by water and it reportedly spread quickly, producing thick black fumes.
Eyewitnesses said the workers who managed to escape passed through the burning entrance where the fire started, hence their burn injuries.
Valenzuela fire not the first tragedy in occupational health and safety
This is not the first factory fire that killed many workers under the government of Pres. Benigno Aquino III, the KMU noted.
On May 9, 2012, 17 workers of Novo Jeans and Shorts in Butuan City died when a fire broke out. On April 30, 2014, eight workers of Asia Micro Tech in Pasay City died in a fire.
Also, the KMU recalled, this is not the first time that workers were killed at the workplace. They said more than 40 construction workers have died under the Aquino government.
“We are revolted that not a single capitalist has been judged guilty and jailed for the massacre of workers in the workplace under the Aquino government. We are calling for justice for all the workers who died in the workplace. Violations of occupational health and safety standards that result in workers’ deaths should be made a crime,” Joselito Ustarez, KMU vice-president, said in a statement.
The labor center is also aghast over what it described as negligence by the Department of Labor and Employment, especially because it issued Order No. 131-13 titled “Rules on Labor Laws Compliance System.” The order declared that it aims to foster “a culture of voluntary compliance with labor laws” while further decreasing government responsibility for the upholding of occupational health and safety standards. But, according to KMU, it is invoking “tripartism” in supposedly upholding health and safety in the workplace but it reality, the labor center said, the order is a means “to cover up the naked power that capitalists wield in the workplace.”
In Congress, GWP Representative Emmi De Jesus urged her fellow lawmakers to fast-track the approval of the Occupational Health Bill or the “Workers’ Safety and Health Inspection and Employers’ Liability Decree” (Workers’ SHIELD), which, she and fellow GWP Rep Luzviminda Ilagan, filed after eight women workers died in another fire in Pasay last year.
If this bill called Workers’ Shield were passed, De Jesus said, the labor department would have been mandated to investigate all workplaces regardless of its size according to national standards. She said the labor department would also have been obligated to conduct annual safety inspections, to list the workers who died or got injured in relation to their work, and to disclose the report on labor inspection to the public.
KMU called on Filipino workers to unite and fight for the upholding of occupational health and safety, and for other fundamental workers’ rights. It urged workers to form “genuine, militant and nationalist labor unions” saying that with such a union, they can they fight for their rights and ultimately for their very lives.
[Updated May 15, 2015]