“Our fellow workers have died, and will continue dying in factories found violating labor standards and occupational and safety standards if accountability and justice continue to be elusive.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — A month after the massive factory fire that hit House Technology Industries (HTI) located in the Cavite Export Processing Zone, workers seeking answers concerning those believed to have been trapped in the factory rallied at the gates of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA). But similar to what they encountered in Cavite’s Export Processing Zone when they held a fact-finding mission to the factory fire from February 2 to 4, they also encountered barriers in going to PEZA.
Upon entering Bonifacio Global City where PEZA relocated recently, security guards and policemen blocked their vehicles and accosted the drivers and workers inside. They tried to drive them out of the Bonifacio Global City, citing “lack of coordination” with the private owners of the city.
After minutes of heated discussion in the middle of the intersection across the Ayala-owned Market Market!, the workers, asserting their right to free speech, got off their vehicles and marched toward the PEZA gate surrounded and pursued by security guards and police. Some security guards seized a couple of the workers’ placards. Some of the guards shouted at the protesters.
The guards demanded to see the drivers’ licenses.
“You are not allowed here, this is a private place,” the guards told the protesters in Filipino. They said the protesters cannot be on the streets of BGC.
In frustration, Roger Soluta, KMU Vice President, said, “Where can you see a government agency that gives more importance to foreigners?”
Soluta explained that they were headed to PEZA to push for an impartial investigation into the massive HTI factory fire and to seek justice for the thousands of workers likely injured or killed but covered up by PEZA and Cavite’s local government heads. HTI is a foreign-owned locator in the government-owned Export Processing Zone in Cavite.
In front of the gates of the compound housing PEZA and the Department of Energy, Soluta said in a speech, that they came to demand action and accountability on the part of PEZA.
While he was speaking, a group of policemen continued interrupting and accosting him. Soluta questioned the PEZA announcement that HTI was compliant with health and safety standards. He cited the results of the National Fact-Finding Mission held by labor NGO’s and labor advocates even as the HTI was still burning in Cavite.
Formed by teams from the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research, Kilusang Mayo Uno, Kadamay and Gabriela, the mission validated earlier streaming reports from various workers who escaped the blaze that hundreds of workers were trapped and likely killed in the fire. This contradicted the official announcement of Cavite Governor Boying Remulla, who confirmed only three fatalities and concluded that “all workers had been accounted for.”
At the time the governor said it, HTI workers who shared accounts of their escape from the fire were telling the members of the fact-finding mission, on condition of anonymity, that aside from having seen unconscious workers on the ground of the rapidly burning housing factory, they were sure the HTI had not held a headcount of all workers after the fire.
“How can they say ‘all workers had been accounted for?’ asked the HTI contractual workers who claimed only the regular workers’ names were posted and probably counted by the management.
KMU and the groups who held a fact-finding mission early this month recommends an immediate, transparent, truly independent and impartial investigation into the HTI tragedy, free from intervention by the HTI management, PEZA, and Cavite LGU to lend credence to the result. They said that the investigation must pave way for full and complete disclosure of casualties so that justice can find its course.
HTI violating health, safety and labor standards
Estrellita Bagasbas, an elderly leader of urban poor group Kadamay, expressed frustration with the police and the security forces who continued to try to drive the protesters away from the gates of PEZA in BGC.
“The foreign capitalists are probably laughing their heads off at us Filipinos,” Bagasbas said. She said Filipino workers are being intensely exploited in factories and establishments; they are being paid loose change; they are in factories violating the country’s fire and building code, yet, the police who should have been protecting the workers are instead shutting them up.
“We came here in peace. We are just here to protest the seeming government cover-up of the tragedy in HTI,” Bagasbas said.
Lito Luces, leader of Labor for National Democracy under the Kilusang Mayo Uno, said in a speech at PEZA gates: “Pinigilan nyo kami pumasok sa CEPZA, ayaw ninyo imbestigahan ng media, tapos ngayon pinipigilan din kami sa PEZA magprograma.” (You prevented us from entering CEPZA. You don’t want the media to investigate, and now you are preventing us from holding a program in front of PEZA.)
The workers appealed to the police and the BGC guards. “Our fellow workers have died, and will continue dying in factories violating labor standards and occupational and safety standards if accountability and justice continue to be elusive,” Bagasbas said.
Fact-finding missions after the factory fire tragedies in the Philippines have revealed the following grave violations of OSH standards: (1) chemicals and other easily combustible materials were not stored properly, (2) fire alarm systems were not in place, (3) workers were trapped because of locked fire exits and emergency exits leading to the burning building instead of safe and fire-resistant areas.
“When will the government learn?” asked Nadia De Leon, Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) advocacy officer in a statement.
IOHSAD has said that industrial fires can be prevented through regular and strict inspection of compliance with OSH standards by business establishments, particularly those that are considered hazardous and fire-prone. It said that the government should conduct a mandatory inspection of all workplaces regardless of size and kind of operation.
Fact-finding missions after factory fires (such as in Kentex and now in HTI) revealed the danger of the government’s policy of ceding the responsibility to inspect the factories on the management itself.