Kentex survivors, families demand justice, assistance

Some survivors said there were victims who were so consumed by fire they just became part of the “debris” that were cleaned out and disposed of in sacks by a crew of “rescue” workers from the city government and firefighters.

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – “We could not just let what happened pass,’” said Kenny Guerrero, 28, a delivery crew of Kentex’s Havana rubber slippers products. Almost two weeks since the Kentex factory fire in Valenzuela that officially killed at least 72 workers, the surviving workers now without jobs and the family of those who died are still grappling with the implication of a preventable tragedy.

They trooped to the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) on Tuesday, May 26, in one of their efforts to seek justice for what happened.

In the picture is Kenny Guerrero, Kentex fire survivor, now jobless and seeking justice for his friends, coworkers and family member who died in the factory fire (Photo by Marya Salamat / Bulatlat.com)
Kenny Guerrero, Kentex fire survivor, now jobless and seeking justice for his friends, coworkers and family member who died in the factory fire (Photo by Marya Salamat / Bulatlat.com)

Guerrero, one of the 22 workers who came to file a case against the Kentex owners and the agency who employed them as longtime contractuals, has worked in Kentex for years. “I’ve had friends there and a brother-in-law who died in the fire,” he said.

He remembers them vividly every night, he said, and he has trouble going to sleep. He especially took pity on their children. Whenever he sees the bereaved families, he notes how they still appear to be dazed and shocked.
He went to the office of the NLRC wearing a black T-shirt on which was written their call in white: “#Justice for Kentex workers,” on top of an illustration of a pair of slippers.

Factory fire killed about 200?

Seventy-two workers officially perished in the Kentex fire in Valenzuela City on May 13, as they were trapped inside the factory which, although awarded certifications of compliance with labor standards, health and safety requirements and fire and safety requirements from both the labor department and the Bureau of Fire Protection, turned out to be committing violations of its rules, resulting in the workers being trapped in the factory during the fire. There was no fire exit, no fire alarm and drill. Compounding it was the fact that the factory was built guaranteed to ward off would-be thieves among the people inside, as it had glass windows and steel grills and chicken wire preventing their escape. The only backdoor was locked.

The 72 officially dead after the fire corresponded only to the number of skulls found in the wreckage. Relatives of the victims surmised that there may be more, insisting as early as May 14, one day after the fire, to bring those who know how to identify remains even if it were charred beyond recognition as human bodies.

Some survivors said there were victims who were so consumed by fire they just became part of the “debris” that were cleaned out and disposed of in sacks by a crew of “rescue” workers from the city government and firefighters.

Another worker, Michael Lazarte who had worked 12 years in the slippers factory, had separately disclosed to Manila Today that some 200 people were at the factory when it burned down, and most have remained unaccounted for.

Rino Vargas, 33, married with two children, a machine operator in Kentex, told Bulatlat.com at the NLRC that only about 10 workers managed to escape from the factory as smoke rapidly filled the building.

Only a few others also managed to escape by climbing to the gate at the back, some survivors who came to NLRC this Tuesday told Bulatlat.com.

Vargas worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. everyday in the rubber slippers factory. He showed us his identification card saying he was an employee not directly under Kentex but under a management and labor consultancy which, in 2014, was renamed CJC. He is not considered a regular worker even if he had worked seven years in Kentex until the fire.

To make slippers, a group of workers first turn it into the rubber materials of right thickness at what they call the “mixing roll.” Then it is cut into its rubber slippers form, then it passes through the “weigher,” then the machine operators create straps. After this, the separate parts are brought to the warehouse outside and returned to the factory after it has been cleaned at the edges (“with no overflow”), and with appropriate holes where the straps will go. The slipper parts are returned to the second floor for assembly. After the workers apply the straps into the holes bored into the rubber slippers, they have the finished products. Then these will be for the delivery crew to work on.

What saved Vargas was his being near the entrance when the fire broke out. He said he saw smoke coming from near the entrance. When he went down from the second floor, he saw many workers trying to put out the fire at the ground floor. It was near breaktime that morning, he recalled.

When the workers realized that their efforts had been futlie, they had only seconds to escape from the factory.
“My partner warned: ‘It will explode!’ and we ran quickly out the gate,” Vargas said. And it did explode as they were running.

“All those still working upstairs were trapped. Every entrance and exit was rapidly enveloped by smoke, and then, by fire,” Vargas recalled.

Guerrero, meanwhile, said he returned to the factory at 2:30 p.m. after making a delivery, only to be greeted by the sight of it burning down and spewing black noxious smoke into the air. Like others who made it outside, and the relatives of the workers still trapped inside, he said he wanted to help but they could not enter the burning factory.

All the while, he said he was concerend about his brother-in-law and friends still trapped inside.

Precarious work literally deadly

Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz had declared Kentex as compliant with general labor standards and occupational health and safety standards a day after the fire.

But after the survivors revealed their condition in the factory, Baldoz made a turnaround and called for an investigation.

Lawyer Remigio Saladero of Pro-Labor Legal Assistance Center (PLACE) told Bulatlat.com that Baldoz made a declaration against the CJC manpower agency only after they filed a case against the agency and Kentex company at the NLRC.

In the picture are relatives and survivors of Kentex factory fire set to file labor cases against Kentex Manufacturing Corp. and CJC manpower agency, May 26, 2015 (Photo by M. Salamat / Bulatlat.com)
Relatives and survivors of Kentex factory fire set to file labor cases against Kentex Manufacturing Corp. and CJC manpower agency, May 26, 2015 (Photo by M. Salamat / Bulatlat.com)

“Immediately upon learning that some workers filed a case, Baldoz declared CJC illegal,” said Saladero. He recalled that the NLRC almost refused to accept the cases being filed by the first seven workers, as employees of the NLRC said they were awaiting “the signal from higher ups.”

That struck Saladero as “not normal.”

He said Baldoz is simply trying to score “papogi” points (political credit) after the disclosures on labor conditions in Kentex showed her and her department in a bad light.

This Tuesday, the 22 workers (survivors and relatives of those killed) who filed cases at the NLRC comprised what Saladero calls as the second batch. He explained that the reason only seven comprised the first batch was because the workers were stuck at another place at the time as they awaited some promised relief assistance.

Saladero said the workers are filing cases related to violation of all labor standards in Kentex. These include non-payment of minimum wages, lack of service incentive leave, holiday pay, overtime pay, among others.

He said the workers complained that they often worked 12 hours a day but were paid for just eight and some for just 10 hours.

The workers told Bulatlat.com that they were paid P202 by their manpower agency, and Kentex provided some allowance.

Aside from the agency workers who appeared to work continuously but always under five-month contracts, the workers said, there are “pakyawan” or workers paid under piece rate system for temporary periods during peak season, as it was when the fire occurred.

In the list of labor cases the workers filed against Kentex Manufactring Corporation, it also includes violation of health and safety standards, labor-only contracting (non-regularization of workers with necessary jobs that are also desirable for the business of the concerned establishment), non-remittance of SSS, Philhealth, among others.

The workers are getting assistance from PLACE and other labor NGOs. They are also set to file criminal cases against Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, labor department regional director (for National Capital Region) Alex Avila and the Kentex Manufacturing Corp for alleged criminal negligence.

Meanwhile, some labor organizations such as the KMU are pressing the government not just for justice and accountability but also for speedier aid to the victims’ families. In a picket in front of the headquarters of the Social Security System last May 25, the KMU and some Kentex survivors said the SSS should undertake additional measures to help the families of the victims and the survivors of the biggest factory fire in the country’s history, especially in recognition of the injustices suffered by Kentex workers for years. ()

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