A year after Kentex factory fire, risky workplaces, contractualization persist

“The country’s justice system and the government make it very clear that they consider workers’ lives very cheap. Justice for the victims and survivors is being denied and lessons from the tragedy remain unheeded.”

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – A week such as this last year, Kentex Manufacturing Corp., maker of rubber slippers with factories in Valenzuela, was cranking up production and was on a yearly production peak. It was not paying most of its workers the mandated minimum wages. It did not call most of its workers regular workers. They were instead a diverse mix of “permanent temporary” workers, not regular but continuously working in the same factory – there were the agency-hired contractual workers, the open-contract contractual workers, the piece-raters for the peak season, the summer jobbers, etc.

Their plight became known nationally and internationally when at least 72 of them were confirmed trapped and killed in a factory fire last year.

Dubbed as the worst factory fire in the Philippines in recent years, Kentex fire is now on its first year on May 13, but to this day, the workers, the survivors and their families, are still trapped in non-regular jobs in other factories, and they are still demanding justice because no one among the authorities or the factory owners who could have prevented the fire has been held accountable.

To mark the first year of the Kentex factory fire, workers led by national labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno, together with survivors and family members of victims in the Justice for Kentex Workers Alliance, held a mass and a protest program outside the factory’s gates in Barangay Ugong, Valenzuela City morning of May 13. They said justice remains elusive to the victims’ families and the survivors, and government policies regarding contractualization and workplace safety remain in place.

The hearing for the criminal cases the workers and survivors filed started only nine months after the fire, and nothing has yet happened to the case.

“The country’s justice system and the government make it very clear that they consider workers’ lives very cheap. Justice for the victims and survivors is being denied and lessons from the tragedy remain unheeded,” said Elmer “Ka Bong” Labog, KMU chairperson.

Business owners, govt officials scot-free

Labog said the Department of Justice has been very slow in acting on the criminal charges filed by the families of the victims and the survivors against capitalists Ong King Guan and Beato Ang.

The Ombudsman, meanwhile, “is sitting on the administrative complaints that were filed by the families of the victims and the survivors against Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, former Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, and other top government officials,” the KMU said in a statement.

Most labor groups blame the Aquino government for having laid the conditions that resulted in the Kentex fire tragedy.

Majority of the Kentex workers who died are contractuals. Labog said that in most unsafe workplaces there are more contractuals. “They are often the first ones hired, they can easily be removed from work when they demand for workplace safety.”

In fact, last year as Kentex factory was still a smoking heap of rubble, long-time contractual workers of Lucio Tan-owned Tanduay Distillers Inc. in Laguna held a strike, and one of their chief demands was occupational safety gears.

They were fired from their jobs. No major change was carried out in workplace safety policies a year after the factory fire, said a workplace safety organization, the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD), in another statement. IOHSAD and other Labor NGOs and organizations such as EILER and KMU conducted a fact-finding mission on Kentex a day after the fire.

“The Labor Department continues to implement Department Order 131-13 or the Labor Laws Compliance System (LLCS) which failed to ensure workers’ safety and overlooked the grave violations of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) standards committed by the Kentex management,” said Nadia de Leon, IOHSAD advocacy officer.

“The Kentex tragedy is a grim indication of how DOLE’s Labor Law Compliance System (LLCS) has ridiculously resulted in self-assessment among companies,” said Anna Lea Escresa, executive director of labor NGO Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER). She urged the presumptive president Rodrigo Duterte to replace this system of voluntary compliance with a strong pro-labor regulatory mechanism that enforces labor laws in all companies big or small.

The KMU, meanwhile, called on all workers, especially the contractuals, to unite and fight for their rights, including workplace safety.

“We are calling on them to defy the repressive measures being taken against them. Ultimately, they are fighting for no less than their lives,” Labog said. ()

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