In May 2015, a fire gutted the Kentex slippers factory in Valenzuela City in the National Capital Region. What shocked the nation was not the extent and amount of damage to property due to the fire. It was the number of workers killed 74 and why and how they died in the fire. It turned out, the factory had no fire exits and the windows were covered with wires, thereby preventing workers from escaping the fire. Witnesses saw workers, while the fire was raging, pleading for help before being engulfed in fire and smoke. Flammable chemicals were not properly stored causing the fire and explosion that followed.
Further investigation revealed the dire conditions of workers: majority of the 200 workers were paid on a piece rate basis and 65 percent were casuals. And yet, Kentex received compliance certificates from the Department of Labor and Employment and the Bureau of Fire Protection.
However, the Kentex fire tragedy could be likened by some as a case of exploitative conditions in small sweatshops. By the way, as of 2009, micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) comprise 99.6 percent of registered businesses in the country, of which 91.4 percent are micro enterprises, 8.2 percent are small, and 0.4 percent are medium enterprises. Together, MSMEs employ 70 percent of the workforce. As people very well know, the smaller the company, the less wages and benefits workers receive and the working conditions are generally worse.
But this time, the factory that a fire gutted was a large one, which is located inside the Export Processing Zone Authority (EPZA) in Rosario, Cavite. The fire was in the seven-hectare facility of House Technologies Industries or HTI, which manufactures prefabricated housing materials. HTI employs between 6,000 to 7,000 workers and employees.
As of this writing, 104 workers were brought to the hospital, with 10 suffering third-degree burns and some more in critical condition. The number of casualties and missing could still not be determined.
Would further investigation reveal the same dire conditions of workers? One would think not since HTI is not a sweatshop; it is a big factory after all.
But think again. First, reports reveal that the factory, being inside an EPZA complex, is not under the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP). This could either be a bad or a good thing, considering the record of the BFP. However, no regulation or inspection is worse than inconsistent regulation.
Second, under a deregulated environment, which the country adheres to (no thanks to neoliberalism), factories are under self-regulation and voluntary compliance of labor laws. What makes matters worse is that labor unions are being suppressed in EPZAs. So nobody is holding companies in EPZAs to account for violating labor laws and rights. And there is no union fighting for workers’ rights, including safe working conditions.
People, including the relatives of the workers, are still waiting for more information on the fire, the casualties, and the results of the investigation. Let us hope that this would not be a repeat of the Kentex tragedy. If it is, it is high time for the people to act to protect worker’s rights and safety. It is a matter of life and death for all of us.