Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. VI, No. 12      April 30 - May 6, 2006      Quezon City, Philippines











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Deadly Workplace

Elmer Pen needs no imagination to see how he’d look when he dies – he now looks deathly pale. Compounding his worrisome look are his hands, which are perpetually crooked.  He can’t straighten them even if he tries. For 18 years now Pen has been working at Unilox, or Union Lead & Oxide Industrial Corporation, a company that produces lead oxide, stabilizers, and anodes.


Elmer Pen needs no imagination to see how he’d look when he dies – he now looks deathly pale. Compounding his worrisome look are his hands, which are perpetually crooked.  He can’t straighten them even if he tries.

For 18 years now Pen has been working at Unilox, or Union Lead & Oxide Industrial Corporation in Pasig City, which the workers say is owned by relations of the Aboitiz family. They produce lead oxide, stabilizers and anodes, 70 percent of which are for export while the rest are for the local market.

In the course of production, Elmer Pen and his co-workers use lead, PVC and carbon black. They are exposed to lead in its various forms like powder, gas, bar, or dross. They crush and grind lead, mold and repackage it, all the while freely inhaling its gas and dust, or getting coated with lead powder.  When they sweat- and they profusely sweat owing to the heat emanating from their melting pot- more lead powder stick to their skin. Their workplace has no ceiling and lacks windows. It is not properly ventilated, said Emma Cellada, training officer of the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (Iohsad), a non-government organization involved in advocacy efforts for ensuring a safe working environment for workers.

Like the rest of his hundred-plus co-workers Elmer Pen is being poisoned by lead. A fellow worker once bought bread as snacks for their union meeting. But after putting down the bread, he couldn’t straighten his bent arms anymore.

They have other health complaints.  But they were told by doctors of the private health insurance company hired by Unilox that these are only “natural,”. On the average, Unilox workers have been working there for 15 to 27 years now. 

Unilox management has reasons to know of its workers’ growing lead poisoning, said Iohsad. Every three or six months they check the workers’ blood for lead content. But the company wouldn’t admit that the growing menace is work-related. They don’t extend aid to their workers. Instead, they only require the most poisoned or the weakest to rest for two weeks to one month.  But the sick leave is shouldered by the Social Security System (SSS). 

At present the Unilox union is trying to get certification that their varying levels of lead poisoning is work-related. They’re also urging the management to construct a proper ventilation system.

Effective ventilation is achieved if local exhaust vents draw away the hazards at their source, and the contaminated air is treated (say, scrubbed), and not returned to the workroom. Meanwhile, another vent system should provide fresh, clean air. Health research shows that air safety is achieved when the breathing zone of each worker is free of vapors, fumes and dust, especially when poisonous substances used in production is mingled with it.

Unfortunately, in Unilox, the union’s effort is being thwarted right from the start.  The management won’t even hear from “outsiders” like Iohsad whom the workers approached for expert help.

At present, the Unilox workers’ struggle for a less deadly workplace has to compete for the union’s time and effort.  The union is also pressing management for wage increases.    

Left in the dark

Improper ventilation and working with toxic substances also define the day-to-day working environment of workers in Mustad, makers of fishing hooks for export based in Novaliches.  The company is  80 percent owned by a Norwegian. The workers here have been employed for an average of 20 to 25 years. Recently, two workers died from cancer.

Absence of yearly medical records and strict monitoring hamper the union’s efforts to make sense of the cause of their deaths. They suspect these were work-related. Workers in Mustad complain of chronic headaches, irritated nose, dizziness, stiff hands. But whenever they go to their clinic for checkup, they are told that what they’re feeling is “nothing serious to worry about.” 

In Unilox less than a third of the workforce dimly remembered receiving orientation on the toxic materials they work with.  But workers in Mustad confessed to being left in the dark. They have to research by themselves the nature of the substances they’re handling every working day. Through their research they found out that the lead, solvents and dyes they use are hazardous materials, yet, the management didn’t even bother to inform them about it.  Management didn’t even discuss with them what to do in case of prolonged exposure, accidental ingestion, over-inhalation, etc.  Worse, the ventilation in their workplace is very inadequate, the workers have no choice but to inhale the toxic vapors of the said substances.

The union of Mustad workers is now documenting their health conditions. But as in the case of Unilox, they have to do it alongside their fight for the implementation of wage increases and other previously granted benefits. 

Government statistics show that over 40 percent of establishments inspected do not comply with general labor standards, with underpayment of wages the leading offense. “It is unfortunate that often, the issue of health and safety gets relegated behind the more basic issues of wages and job security, said Iohsad’s Emma Cellada. “How can you continue working if your health is damaged?” But that’s how it looks for the country’s workers.

Unfortunately, it appears the government can’t do much to help. Government hardly monitors the occupational health and safety in the Philippines – it seriously lacks inspectors, and they’re more concerned about the technical aspects of monitoring, such as electrical wiring, rather than the existing hazards in the workplace that are deleterious to the workers' health, said Iohsad’s doctors.

Iohsad noted in a report that only a very small percentage of the few government inspectors submitted their reports to the Department of Labor and Employment, leaving the department helpless because it relies only on the “sanitized” reports of the employers. Iohsad said this is due to the fact that another government agency is offering a cash reward at the end of the year for any establishment that have no accidents or illness recorded in a one year period.

Iohsad added that, "There is also a lack of penalty provisions as far as implementation of occupational health and safety standards are concerned. For example, an employer who is found violating the standards would just be fined about $500, which is very much cheaper than improving working conditions." Bulatlat



© 2006 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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