The fact that majority or 69 workers died on the second floor of the building, where they could have been able to pass through a fire escape if one had been functioning, belies the claims by the factory owner and the Labor Department that Kentex complied with labor standards, building requirements and fire and safety requirements.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Even as Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian, Kentex legal counsel Renato Paraiso and Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz are telling the mainstream media about the factory owners’ compliance with labor standards, building requirements and fire and safety requirements, the death of 72 people, as of the last count, because of the fire and the tales of how the workers were treated at work are drawing outrage and calls for justice.
Following a fact-finding mission on Kentex by non-government labor institutions, they concluded that the death of the workers in the 7-hour factory fire in Valenzuela two days ago, May 13, resulted from the violations of occupational health and safety standards committed by the management of Kentex Manufacturing, Inc.
These violations were evidenced by the appearance of the burnt structure and the accounts of surviving workers, the non-government Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) said in a statement emailed to media. With them in the mission were the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research and the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).
IOHSAD took special note of the fact that majority or 69 workers died on the second floor of the building, where they could have been able to pass through a fire escape if one had been functioning.
The three fatalities found at the stairs toward the ground floor reportedly included the son of the factory owner and his wife. They were racing down the stairs but the fire caught up with them, a survivor told the fact-finding mission.
The labor NGOs and the KMU said Kentex committed the following violations which caused the death of 72 people:
1 Kentex Manufacturing Corporation’s factory in Valenzuela showed no functioning or proper fire exits, in clear violation of Rule 1943.03 of the Philippine Occupational Health and Standards (OHSS) 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 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.”
From interviews with fire survivors and a tour of the gutted factory, the labor NGOs and KMU found out it had no fire exits. There were only two gates — one for people and another for delivery trucks. The latter stayed close during the fire.
The factory windows, meanwhile, have steel grills and chicken wire which could not easily be destroyed during emergencies. Witnesses outside the burning factory said workers at the second floor tried to break open the windows, until they could no longer be seen from outside.
Workers who managed to escape had to climb the walls at the back of the factory as the gate for delivery trucks remained locked.
Of the more than 70 workers on the second floor, only four escaped by squeezing themselves through an opening and then jumping out of the building.
2 ‘Kentex mishandled the chemical Super Seal, which is used as a rubber emulsifier.’
Survivors of the fire interviewed by the fact-finding team said the fire began on the ground floor of the two-storey building. The welding spatter coming from the roll up door being repaired at the second floor near the stairs reacted with the chemicals improperly stored on the factory’s ground floor.
From the survivors’ account, the said containers of newly-delivered flammable chemicals (called Superseal) were not stored properly. Worse, these were also placed near where welders worked on steel doors. All these, the fact-finding team said, are in 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 did “not properly label and spread awareness of the nature of the chemical” stored on the ground floor.
Workers, including the welders contracted from outside, were unaware the chemical is highly flammable as it was not properly labeled. Survivors also reportedly said that when smoke began to rise from the sacks of chemical where the welding spatter were falling, some workers tried to put it out with water, but it only made matters worse as the fire grew bigger.
When the workers used a fire extinguisher, the fire was already roaring. Survivors recounted how, after spraying it with the fire extinguisher, they were immediately engulfed by black smoke.
The fact-finding team said absence of proper labeling violates Rule 1093.04 on Marking of Containers which requires that “All containers with hazardous substances shall be properly labelled. No employer … shall accept any container of hazardous substances for use, handling or storage unless such containers are labelled.”
4 Kentex appeared to have neither a proper smoke and fire alarm nor a regular fire and safety drill among workers, the team of labor NGOs and KMU members concluded from the survivors’ account.
Survivors said that even when the ground floor was already enveloped in smoke, workers in the assembly line and office at the second floor continued working.
With the fire spreading quickly, workers were trapped inside with no other exit but the main door, where the fire started.
Survivors said they also heard no fire alarm. Workers who had worked for years in Kentex can’t remember any fire and safety drill conducted by the management. Asked about the safety officer, the workers did not know if there was one.
The fact-finding team said these are clear violations of Rules on alarm and fire drills. Rule 1948.01 states that “(1) All buildings having two or more stories in height shall be equipped with fire alarm system and signals of distinctive quality and pitch clearly audible to all persons inside the building.”
Rule on 1948.03 requires that: “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.”
Compliance report ‘erroneous, unreliable’
“With all these glaring and clear OHS violations of Kentex Manufacturing, how did the Department of Labor and Employment release an OHS compliance certificate to Kentex in Septemper 2014?” the fact-finding team asked.
The group further questioned how the lack of fire exits inside the workplace premises passed the evaluation conducted by DOLE inspectors. They said if these had been pointed out during the inspection, corrective measures could have been implemented to ensure occupational safety of workers in Kentex and evade the loss of lives.
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz has said in a statement that “Kentex Manufacturing has been found to be compliant with general labor standards and occupational safety and health standards after a joint assessment by our Labor Laws Compliance Officers under the new Labor Laws Compliance System”.
In saying that of Kentex Manufacturing, “an OHS (occupational health and safety) standards violator,” the KMU and labor NGOs said it makes the labor department “primarily accountable to the deaths of the 72 workers in this tragedy.”
They said the labor department failed its role in ensuring workers are protected and their lives are safe and secure inside the workplace.
‘String of fatal workplace incidents’
Since 2013, the Labor Department has touted its new Labor Laws Compliance System as “one of its kind,” and that the Philippines as “one of the first to adopt the innovative approach for improving compliance with labor laws”.
But the string of fatal occupational accidents belied the labor department’s claims in ensuring occupational health and safety, the joint report of the fact-finding team said. They connect the unjust death of Kentex 72 to the tragedies that also claimed the lives of 11 construction workers in Bulacan, eight female workers of AsiaTech in Pasay, 10 construction workers in Eton Towers, and 17 women workers at Novo in Butuan.
“Many had died but no one had been prosecuted or held criminally liable, constituting impunity in industrial safety,” read the joint report of labor NGOs IOHSAD, CTUHR and EILER and labor center KMU.
What voluntary compliance?
International Labor Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder was greatly saddened by the factory fire that killed 72 workers.
“We can make workplaces safe by improving working conditions in factories, including carrying out regular inspections to ensure that factories comply with structural, fire and electrical safety; and by ensuring workers’ rights, especially freedom of association and collective bargaining,” he said in another statement.
But such inspections are not really being carried out in the Philippines despite certificates and claims, based on the findings of labor NGOs and KMU in Kentex and in other workplaces where workers died at work.
In the Labor Department’s Order (DO) 131-13, it pushes the Labor Laws Compliance System, which, it said, aims to “inculcate and foster a culture of voluntary compliance, where there is less government intervention, and there is more workers’ and employers’ active participation in the plant-level.”
This order, the fact-finding team said, is essentially the same as the much criticized DO 57-04 it superseded. The latter “promoted ‘self-assessment’ by establishments on their compliance with labor standards, letting government agencies shirk their responsibilities,” the Pamantik-KMU said in Filipino in another statement. It is also described as “privatization of labor inspection.”
DO 131-13 differs only in using what the fact-finding team calls as “rhetoric of tripartism.” They say tripartism is just a way for employers to mask their sole power in the workplace, given that the government also works in cahoots with employers and they are doing their utmost to prevent genuine workers’ representation through a legitimate and independent union.
“Workers’ basic rights to occupational health and safety should not be hinged on companies’ voluntarism but rather on strict enforcement by the government,” the joint team of labor NGOs and labor center said.
Strict, frequent safety inspection urged
Instead of voluntary inspection and self-assessment, the KMU and labor NGOs suggest mandatory, strict and frequent safety inspection by the Labor Department of all establishments.
“The inspection should be done through unannounced visits of labor inspectors to prevent companies from concealing safety standards violations. Results of the inspection should be published immediately and must be presented and approved by the general assembly of workers,” its recommendations said.
In the upcoming probe by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Labor on May 20, Senior Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares suggests looking not just at the occupational safety mechanisms of Kentex but on the liability also of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Aquino administration “for allowing like structured factories in Kentex to proliferate in the country.”
The lawmaker added the Bureau of Fire Prevention should also be summoned at the hearing because structures like the Kentex factory dealing with highly combustible materials should have higher fire safety standards.
“The violation of occupational health and safety standards that led to the death of 72 workers is a crime that deserves criminal punishment. We are calling for nothing less. The workers of Kentex and the Philippines deserve nothing less,” KMU vice president Joselito Ustarez said.
The groups that conducted a fact-finding mission on Kentex demanded “concrete steps” to make the employers accountable for the lives lost. They demanded the imposition of criminal and administrative penalties on Veato Ang et al., owner of Kentex, and all owners of companies who have clearly violated occupational health and safety standards that resulted in the death of workers.
They demanded also just compensation for the families of victims, proper benefits for workers who lost their jobs after the fire, and long-term support for orphaned children.
The labor groups demanded too the accountability of the labor department and the Bureau of Fire Protection who gave the company compliance certification which was contradicted by the death of 72 workers and employees due to the fire.
The groups demanded the repeal of DO 131-13 and immediate passage of House Bill 4635 or Workers’ SHIELD (Safety and Health Inspection and Employers’ Liability Decree) that will make violations of occupational health and safety standards both criminal and administrative offenses, while providing victims avenues for justice.
If OHS violations were criminalized, they say it will push companies to comply with health and safety laws.
The labor groups urged the families of victims of Kentex accident to rise up and demand justice for their loved ones. They invited the public to support the demands for justice for Kentex workers and all other victims of occupational accidents by joining the national day of mourning on Monday, 18 May 2015.
[Updated May 16, 2015]