Infamous Blaze*: On Kentex workers and the struggle of labor

BLOODRUSH
By SARAH RAYMUNDO

bu-op-icons-sarahThis is no way to die. That was my initial reaction upon reading the news on a factory fire that killed 72 people who made rubber slippers for a living. This is among the worst documented fires in contemporary times in terms of casualties. In 2001, fire gutted a budget hotel killing 75 people. Much earlier, 162 people died in a big fire that gutted the Ozone disco in 1996.

Witnesses and survivors report that victims were screaming for help behind iron grills that barred them from escaping through the windows. The iron grills were installed to protect the owners of Kentext from theft. Yet the 72 workers on account of a system that reduces labor to a mere function of time had nothing to protect themselves from the theft of surplus value that capitalists practice every working day.

The iron grills that trapped the workers to death weren’t even a metaphor for the iron law of wages that kept workers’ pay to a minimum. They were the logical conclusion of capitalist accumulation, a process that cannot take place without taking away all value that comes from labor to the point of sucking the life out of labor itself.

Sites of Production

Away from Manila at the moment, I can only read as much as I can on the infamous blaze that was the Kentex fire. I realize that a sounder reaction to this monumental tragedy is in order: working for Kentex was no way live!

Kentex is located in Valenzuela City, a factory hub in northern Manila. It was once part of the province of Bulacan until commercial development along with poor urban planning and politician’s glut for business tax and state allocation took over. Valenzuela, though, is no city that fell from grace. I remember passing by factories on a daily basis on my way to school back in the 80s. But for some reason, I don’t remember seeing scores of workers entering into or coming out of those factories. But with vagueness, I do recall one of them being a production site for tabo (mini dippers). The Valenzuela of my childhood felt dry and abandoned.

Despite its status as a chartered city for the state’s vision of economic development, Valenzuela is far from that district of acceptable greed called Makati in all its posh and promise. Valenzuela City’s condos do not bear the same kind of distinction that the small boxes in Bonifacio High Street do. Wasn’t the president’s former girlfriend subtly stigmatized for living in Valenzuela town? It was the ultimate signifier for the class gap between the ex-lovers.

In other words, Valenzuela City is no place of distinction. In a culture where bourgeios standards reign, one way to understand this stigma is precisely Valenzuela’s position in Manila’s political-economic map. Production sites where workers surrender their labor to the altar of capital are not glamorous spaces.

No way to live

But this spatial dynamics is not merely cultural. We are conditioned to pay no mind whatsoever to the laboring activities of people who produce our food, gadgets, shirts, shoes, bags, and slippers. Until something scandalously tragic happens.

Now we are reminded that the first victims of poor working conditions are the workers themselves. The first victims of unemployment are the unemployed rural and urban poor. Meanwhile, the “middling classes” are usually victimized by their own middling minds. The propertied class knows exactly what to do. As owners of the means of production, it is their role to accumalate profit through the exploitation of labor.

Ironically, sites of wealth production are looked down upon and deemed unsafe by people who cultivate an unfortunate aspirational mindset. There is nothing essential about work that makes workers dangerous. But the wage system that is underpinned by the logic of profit accumulation renders workers poor and dispossessed. So poor and dispossessed that certain classes of people can actually live their whole lives distinguishing themselves from this lot. Needless to say, such disposition is a product of miseducation.

From Marx, we learn that if things were really are what they seem, then we no longer have a need for science. Our impressions and fetishes would have sufficed to understand the world and the relations that make it up. Perhaps all we knew about the brand “Havana” before the Kentex fire is that it is a cheap knock-off of the much fetishized, and therefore overpriced Brazillian brand “Havaianas.”

Meanwhile, labor organizations and labor advocates have acquired eyes for what is normally erased from the scene of consumption. The Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development IOHSAD), Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), and Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) immediately conducted a fact-finding mission on the Kentex fire and released the first comprehensive report on the tragedy.

The report tackles how the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) in September 2014 declared that Kentex complies with general labor and occupational safety standards. Likewise, the factory was reportedly given a fire safety inspection certification by the Bureau of Fire Protection.

However, the fact-finding team “found glaring violations of standards pertaining to general labor conditions and to occupational health and safety. They argue “that most likely, these violations caused the tragic and massive loss of lives in the recent fire.”

It is difficult enought to imagine the tragic death of the 72 workers. But knowing about how they lived through the terrible working conditions at Kentex is enraging.

Kentex that is owned by Mr. Beato Ang and Mr. Ong King Guan is the kind of manufacturing company that only regularizes workers after 20-25 years of service. Those who have served the company for 10 years remain casuals. Regular or casual, workers receive a minimum wage and are not part of the company union that is only made up of 30 people.

There are about 104 casual workers illegally hired by a subcontracting agency which DOLE reporteldy aims to summon for patent violation of labor laws. Their social security, health and housing contributions were never remitted by their recruitment agency. Some workers are also hired on a piece-rate basis and are required to work for 12 hours.

All these workers had a shared experience of utmost discomfort in the workplace: “[They] also complain that they have to bear the heat inside the factory during work hours as there is no proper ventilation in the factory. They claim that they get tired of work not because of the heavy workload but because of the heat inside the factory premises.”

Anonymous Victims

Lamentably, officials say that there is no way to determine the accurate number of victims just yet—at least 20 more are missing— not even their complete names are available as records were lost. Records show, however, that long before fire razed Kentex factory, none of its workers mattered, not their welfare, not their lives, much less their names.

The Aquino regime like many governments which have embraced the interest of big business have actually withdrawn from its public obligations ranging from health care, education, housing, transporation, water, energy, and other public utilities. They have done so through the neoliberal consensus that was clinched since the 1970s. It is an anti-people consensus that the ruling class in imperialist states and their allies in their client states have forged to save global capitalism from its crisis.

DOLE’s Department Order 18-A (DO 18-A),which effectively legalizes contractualization, enables the illegal subconracting of labor. This is why government officials’ statements by Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldo and Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr that pay lip service to labor rights are hypocritical, deceptive, and empty.

Until the Aquino regime lifts its contractualization policy on labor, workers who are already exploited by the wage system will remain vulnerable to all sorts abuses and labor rights violations.

Now more than ever, as Filipino workers are cheapened and brutalized by foreign investors and their local cohorts, and a government that makes new laws against labor so that politicians’ stakes in business is so high they can afford to imagine workers’ lives lesser than their own, the question remains: Socialism or death?

*borrowed from a line in the poem ���Shirt” by Robert Pinsky in the collection The Want Bone (1990): “The infamous blaze/ At the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in nineteen-eleven.” This allusion is to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, a sweatshop where, in 1911, a fire broke out and killed more than one hundred immigrant workers.” ()

Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Center for International Studies (UP-CIS Diliman) and a member of the National Executive Board of the All U.P. Academic Employees Union. She is the current National Treasurer of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the External Vice Chair of the Philppine Anti-Imperialist Studies (PAIS). She is also a member of the Editorial Board of Interface: A Journal for Social Movements.

Share This Post