For Suprimo Lugana, 19 years old, working at Kentex was just one among a series of non-permanent jobs he had had in his young life; little did he know that it would be his last.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – “If only his bones got broken, it would have been alright with us,” said a woman who accompanied a teenaged wife of one of the victims at the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) Tuesday, May 26. They went to file labor cases against Kentex Manufacturing Corp. that day.
“Justice is what we’re after,” said Jennifer Novora, 36. She introduces herself as half-sister of one of the victims.
At her side was Rowena Hije, 16, wife of Kentex fire victim Suprimo Lugana, 19 years old. Hije and Lugana had been married for just a year and two months when he died.
Like other relatives of workers in Kentex, Hije and Novora had rushed to Kentex after they saw the thick smoke and heard the fire sirens and it did not seem to be dying out easily. They live in a rented dormitory just near the factory.
Outside Kentex premises they waited and waited for the workers, most of whom never made it out alive. Meanwhie, they said those who waited outside and the survivors who managed to scamper out before the chemicals exploded circled the compound feeling frustrated and helpless.
“Kung di ganon ang factory mabubuhay sila. Kaso, ganon ang factory at nakulong sila. Balot ng bakal na grill at chicken wire ang bintana, walang fire exit.” (If the factory were not like that they would have lived. But the factory had no fire exit; its windows were slatted with steel grills and chicken wire), Novora said.
Since they arrived near the smoke-shrouded factory, their horror unfolded like a slow nightmare. For six hours, Novora said they can only watch the factory burning down. They were frantic. Some became hysterical. Some had ideas for last-ditch rescue.
But Novora said Mayor Rex Gatchalian told them they should listen only to him. That they should just wait there.
She recounted how she also heard the mayor telling a hysterical mother to listen to him and only to him because he is the mayor
Abo na lang pala hihintayin namin. (It turned out all we could wait for were their ashes),” said Novora.
Precarious employment ends in death
There were accounts from the survivors and affected families that many young people were also killed in the fire. They included the pakyawan who were just working for a temporary period, paid according to the number of slippers they finished assembling.
Dulce Marzan, a utility woman who had worked for 13 years in Maysan Barangay Hall, where the bodies of 69 victims were brought on May 14, told Bulatlat.com there were indeed many high school graduates supposed to be working for just a month but who also died in the fire.
For Suprimo Lugana, the 19 year old husband of Rowena Hije, working at Kentex was just one among a series of non-permanent jobs he had had in his young life.
He was born in Tondo, Manila. His mother hailed from Guian, Eastern Samar. She decided to transfer to Manila to escape poverty, but her son also ended up doing seasonal jobs paying below minimum wages in the city.
Lugana had shuttled to and from seasonal jobs mostly under the piece-rate system. Since he was 16 years old, he had worked in a factory producing notebooks, and then in a factory producing plastic.
In Kentex, he was “a direct-hired,” his wife said. But based on his ID, he was under power agency that his wife said later became the CJC employment agency, the one which the labor department said last week was doing labor-only contracting, an illegal act.
Lugana had worked for just five days when the fire occurred. He died with other contractuals who had worked for years in Kentex, and apparently with seasonal pakyawan workers.
“We did not even find any of his rings,” said the young wife. That could have helped in identifying him, she said.
Like other relatives, Hije and Novora went to the “viewing” of the remains at the Maysan Barangay Hall on May 14 but they failed to recognize any of the charred victims.
“Maya’t maya, may hinihimatay, (Every now and then someone would faint),” said Marzan, the 69-year old employee of the village hall who stayed until 11 p.m. to assist the relatives.
The day after they were taken out of the gutted building, the city government swiftly proceeded with the “temporary interment” of the bodies after getting some samples for DNA testing.
By May 15, “the dead have been distributed,” said Marzan. She was referring to the first three who were released to their relatives as they had been identified, and the rest who were distributed to funeral parlors and then for temporary burial courtesy of the city government.
Hije said they were promised they could retrieve the bodies of their relatives for proper burial after the DNA testing.
Asked if they or the other relatives made it to the “temporary interment,” the young wife and the stepsister said they were not even informed about it.
“If we had been told about it, we would have gone there to see it,” said Hije.
At that point, she said, it doesn’t matter anymore whether or not they could still identify her husband; what mattered then was to at least give the dead some sort of a send-off.
In the morning of May 15, at least 48 coffins of the victims remained at the funeral parlor beside the Maysan Barangay Hall. But by lunchtime, the employees of the city government and the barangay surrounded the funeral parlor, the police commandeered the traffic immediately after members of Kilusang Mayo and Gabriela finished offering flowers and prayers to the victims.
With few relatives present, the city employees loaded the coffins to a truck. One of these employees, wearing a red T-shirt identifying him as part of the “rescue” team of Valenzuela City, told Bulatlat.com the other bodies had been “temporarily interred earlier,” and that they were about to do the same to the 48 remaining victims.