To prevent worker deaths, injuries | Labor groups urge repeal of labor deregulation policies

HTI factory on fire, Cavite export processing zone Feb 2, 2017. Photo by Pinoy Weekly
HTI factory on fire, Cavite export processing zone Feb 2, 2017. Photo by Pinoy Weekly

“The lack of concrete measures from the labor department to address and prevent workplace tragedies is appalling.”

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — After a workplace bigger than the slippers factory Kentex Manufacturing Corp. burned in Cavite last February 1 and local police and government were barred from immediately entering the economic zone where it’s located, labor advocates expressed fears that many workers had likely been put in danger again.

“The lack of concrete measures from the labor department to address and prevent workplace tragedies is appalling,” EILER deputy executive director Rochelle Porras said in a statement. Labor advocates blame the regular occurrences of tragic workplace accidents on government policies that remained unchanged to this day.

As of this writing workers are reported to be still missing a day after House Technology Industries (HTI) burned down. Based on labor organizations and NGOs (non-government organizations) in the area, 150 workers were injured in the fire. Non-government labor rights group Center for Trade Union and Human Rights said at least six workers they interviewed noted they had colleagues in the upper floors who got trapped because the fire spread too quickly inside the complex in the Cavite Export Processing Zone. There are 6,000 to 7,000 workers per shift in the factory.

This early, the workers’ advocates reiterated their calls for the repeal of Labor department’s DO 131-13. They said it “enforces a weak and voluntary model of workplace inspection under the banner of tripartism.”

EILER urged the Duterte government to deploy certified government labor inspectors and strictly inspect the workplaces, independent of the management’s intervention.

The Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in a separate statement demanded the junking of the Republic Act 7916 or the “Special Economic Zones Act.” The labor center traces to this law the establishment of special economic zones “where foreign capitalists are given liberty to exploit workers and violate their rights and welfare to guarantee their profits.”

Like in the HTI fire and in previous workplace accidents, various labor advocates pointed out the following trends that they hope would soon be changed:

1 Govt’s seal of safety-standard-compliant workplaces means nothing because it allows firms to self- assess, self-inspect

Many incidents and accidents in the workplace including in export processing zones have occurred despite the government’s seal of approval on the occupational health and safety practices of its operators. In HTI’s case which burned for hours on Feb 1 and which until now there is no definite news about what happened to the rest of the missing workers, the government is again citing the company’s record of having complied with health and safety standards.

But as various labor groups said in statements, their experiences belied such government assurances. No matter how often the government through the Labor department repeats the message that the involved firms are compliant with safety and labor standards, cases turn up revealing that the workplace remains dangerous to workers. The tragic accidents in Keppel Shipyard in Subic Zambales, the killer fire in Kentex Manufacturing /2016/05/14/a-year-after-kentex-factory-fire-risky-workplaces-contractualization-persist/ and in other factories, showed the same trend.

Workers’ groups such as the KMU traced the meaninglessness of safety-compliance seal to the government’s policy of relegating the job of inspection and assessment to the establishments itself.

The policy that allowed self-assessment in 2011 was called Department Order 57-04. It has been changed under the Aquino government to Labor Laws Compliance System under the Department Order 131-13. It still allows voluntary compliance of business owners and less government intervention, said labor think-tank Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research.

2. Thrust of attracting investors has created the likes of economic enclaves and PEZA where investors rule

Experiences showed that if and when the Labor department chooses to conduct inspections despite its having allowed the establishments to voluntarily self-assess, the Labor department can be trumped by another government entity. In the case of the accident in Keppel Subic Shipyard in 2011, for example, labor undersecretaries and personnel complained about the “gatekeepers” of the Korean investors. PEZA or Philippine Economic Zone Authority is the “gatekeepers.” The country’s laws give PEZA the authority to allow or not to allow labor inspectors (and other government officials) inside economic zones.

A deputy director-general of PEZA in 2011 defended yet revealed also their powers at the Senate hearing in response to complaints by labor officials who waited for five hours at Subic Shipyard’s gate: “We have not subsumed the functions of national government, we have allowed government agencies to still assume jurisdiction and exercise their functions in the economic zones.”

This is on top of the often complained role of PEZA in enforcing an illegal no-union no-strike policy in economic zones, and suppressing workers’ struggles for a wage hike.

Time and again, workers groups in the country have experienced the PEZA’s role of taking the side of the investors whenever workers flexed their democratic rights to form unions or conduct mass actions. In 2014 when a union of electronic workers was holding mass actions in front of NXP Semiconductors inside an economic zone, the PEZA reportedly acted to suppress it.

Roger Soluta, KMU secretary-general, said at the time, “The PEZA did not conduct any investigation into the labor dispute in NXP but automatically deployed police forces against the workers, proof that it is programmed to take the capitalist’s side in labor disputes.” ()

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