Seventy-two workers, many of whom were women, were burned to death and 20 more are still missing in the biggest factory fire that hit the Philippines – the fire that gutted the factory of Kentex Manufacturing Incorporated last May 13, 2015. The company, located along Tatalon Street in Barangay Ugong in Valenzuela City, manufactures rubber slippers for sale and distribution in various parts of the Philippines.
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz claimed that the factory passed an inspection on compliance with general labor standards and occupational health and safety standards that was conducted by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) on September 2014. The Bureau of Fire Protection reportedly also gave the factory a fire safety inspection certification.
However, the fact-finding team which was composed of labor NGOs namely, the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), and the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD), and the national labor center of Kilusang Mayo Uno, which visited the area on May 14, found glaring violations of standards pertaining to general labor conditions and to occupational health and safety. It is most likely that these violations caused the tragic and massive loss of lives in the recent fire.
These violations include:
- Mishandling of the chemical Super Seal, which is used as a rubber emulsifier. Survivors of the fire whom the Team interviewed said that the fire started on the ground floor of the two-storey building when the welding spatter from roll up door being repaired by an outside contractor reacted with the chemical that was unsafely placed on the factory’s floor and was not kept in a separate and safe stockroom.
This clearly violates Rule 1943.07 on storage of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards of 1989. The Rule provides that “(1) Significant quantities of commodities with fire hazards greater than ordinary combustible commodities shall be separated from the main bulk by fire walls.”
- Absence of proper labeling and awareness of the nature of the said chemical. Workers, including the welder who was fixing the gate of the factory compound, were not aware that the chemical is highly flammable as it was not properly labeled. Survivors also said that when smoke started to rise from the sacks of the chemical where the welding spatter fell, there were workers who poured water, which only caused the fire to become bigger. The fire was already huge when the workers attempted to put it off by using the fire extinguisher. Immediately after using the fire extinguisher, they were immediately engulfed by black smoke.
Absence of proper labeling violates Rule 1093.04 on Marking of Containers which requires “All containers with hazardous substances shall be properly labelled. No employer ... shall accept any container of hazardous substances for use, handling or storage unless such containers are labelled.”
- Absence of proper smoke and fire alarm and apparent absence of fire and safety drill among the workers. Survivors also noted that even when the ground floor was already filled with smoke, workers in the assembly line and the office staff at the second floor still continued working. They said the fire spread so quickly that they were trapped inside and there was no other way for them to go out except through the main door. They also recounted that they heard no fire alarm. They also claimed that workers in the second floor of the building were trapped as it was impossible for them to go through the door with such a strong fire coming from the building entrance. Workers who had been working for years in Kentex have not experienced any fire and safety drill conducted by the management. When asked about the Safety Officer, workers interviewed did not know if there was one.
These are clear violations of Rules on alarm and fire drills. Rule 1948.01 states that “(1) All buildings having two or more stories in height shall be equipped with fire alarm system and signals of distinctive quality and pitch clearly audible to all persons inside the building.” Rule on 1948.03 requires that “(1) Fire-exit drills shall be conducted at least twice a year to maintain an orderly evacuation of buildings, unless the local fire department requires a higher frequency of fire drills.”
- Absence of fire exits. The factory compound had NO fire exits and there were only two gates, one is for people and the other is for delivery trucks. The factory windows are covered with steel grills and chicken wire which could not easily be destroyed even during emergencies. Witnesses said that workers at the second floor attempted to break the windows open until they could no longer be seen from the outside. Workers who were able to escape the compound even had to climb the walls at the back as the gate for delivery trucks was locked. Out of the more than 70 workers on the second floor, only four workers escaped by squeezing themselves through an opening and jumping out of the building.
Rule 1943.03 requires “(1) At least two exits shall be provided in every floor and basement of every workplace capable of clearing the work area in five (5) minutes,” and “(6) On every floor, except the ground floor, one of the exits shall lead to an inside stairway or a smokeproof tower, while the other exits shall lead to inside stairways, smoke-proof towers or horizontal exits.”
With all these glaring and clear OHS violations of Kentex Manufacturing, how did the Department of Labor and Employment release an OHS compliance certificate to Kentex in year 2014? How can the lack of fire exits inside the workplace premise pass the evaluation conducted by DOLE inspectors? If these were pointed out during that inspection, corrective measures could have been implemented to ensure occupational safety of workers in Kentex and evade the loss of lives. The issuance of DOLE to Kentex Manufacturing, an OHS standards violator, as complying to OHS standards, makes DOLE primarily accountable to the deaths of the 72 workers in this tragedy. DOLE failed its role in ensuring that workers are protected and their lives are safe and secure inside the workplace.
Kentex Manufacturing Corporation is owned by Mr. Beato Ang and Mr. Ong King Guan. Apart from the clear violations of occupational health and safety standards, worker survivors in Kentex also reported violations of general labor standards, contrary to the claims made by the Labor Department.
Only workers who served for 20-25 years in the company are considered “regular” workers, while those who have been working for an average of 10 years are considered “casual” workers. These regular and casual workers comprise a minority of the workforce and receive only the minimum wage despite having worked for the company for many years. Workers say that the union is a “company union” with around 30 members.
There are more than 100 workers out of the less than 200 workers who were hired by the CGC agency and were receiving only a daily wage of P202 plus P187 to P220 daily allowance, depending on the number of years of service. Agency workers also complain that they discovered that the CGC agency did not remit their SSS, Philhealth and PAG-IBIG contributions and that whenever they complain, the agency would only return their contributions instead of enrolling them in the said mandatory social benefits.
Workers 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.
Apart from the daily-paid casual workers who were hired by the manpower agency, there were also workers who were hired on “pakyawan” or piece-rate basis. These workers work for 12 hours a day without formal contract. Mary Ann Tenis, 30 years old and a single parent of three children, was one of the victims. Her youngest was just nine-month old, according to a friend who was waiting for news about her friend. Tenis had worked for Kentex for five months and was hired as a piece-rate worker.
Almost an entire family was burned to death, with both parents working for Kentex and their three high-school children taking a summer job in the factory. The tragedy orphaned a child enrolled in primary school.
The victims’ families say that they lost their loved ones and their bread winners in the fire. They are pained by their relatives’ death and they are pained by the difficulty in identifying the bodies of their loved ones and giving them a proper burial. They are anxious about what the future holds, thinking of how they can support family members who were left behind.
Call for justice, criminalization of violations that result in deaths
We mourn the death of scores of workers in Kentex and we express our deepest condolences to their families, friends and co-workers. We connect their unjust death with the tragedies that also claimed the lives of 11 construction workers in Bulacan, 8 female workers of AsiaTech in Pasay, 10 construction workers in Eton Towers, and 17 women workers at Novo in Butuan. Many had died but no one had been prosecuted or held criminally liable, constituting impunity in industrial safety.
Successive occupational accidents leading to deaths of workers only prove that existing policies and rules on occupational health and safety standards continue to fail in protecting workers and avoiding tragic accidents. Even the joint assessment and tripartite monitoring system mandated by DOLE Order No. 131-13 that superseded DO 57-04 – which was much-criticized as for promoting companies’ “self-assessment” with regard to occupational health and safety standards – apparently fall short in ensuring that factories and workplaces comply with occupational health and safety standards.
Workers’ safety and health cannot be left to the mercy of companies’ self-regulation or voluntary compliance. Workers’ basic rights to occupational health and safety should not be hinged on companies’ voluntarism but rather on strict enforcement by the government. From this perspective, it is justifiable to claim that DO 131-13 is in essence the same as DO 57-04, except that it uses the rhetoric of tripartism. It still still about the government’s abnegation of its regulatory responsibility. With the lack of genuine workers’ representation through a legitimate and independent union, and with the government working in cahoots with employers, tripartism from this end is nothing but hollow mechanism that masks employers’ sole power in the workplace.
Let not the tragedies in Kentex, Novo Jeans, Eton, among others happen again and claim the lives of more workers. Thus, we demand:
(1) Hold the DOLE and the Bureau of Fire Protection who gave the company compliance certification accountable for the factory fire and deaths of almost a hundred workers and employees. Investigate the process of inspection for the issuance of compliance certification of Kentex. Impose criminal and administrative penalties/charges (?) to key DOLE officials in-charge of the issuance of the compliance certificate.
(2) The imposition of criminal and administrative penalties on Veato Ang et al., owner of Kentex, and all owners of companies who have clearly violated occupational health and safety standards that resulted in the death of workers.
(3) Just compensation for the families of victims, proper benefits for workers who lost their jobs after the fire, and long-term support for orphaned children.
(4) Repeal of DO 131-13 and immediate passage House Bill 4635 or Workers’ SHIELD (Safety and Health Inspection and Employers’ Liability Decree) that will make violations of occupational health and safety standards both criminal and administrative offenses, while providing victims avenues for justice.
We call on the families of victims of Kentex accident to rise up and demand justice for their loved ones. We also call on the people to demand justice for Kentex workers and all other victims of occupational accidents by joining the national day of mourning on Monday, 18 May 2015.
Justice for Kentex workers and other victims of OHS Standards violations!
Strict Enforcement of Occupational Health and Safety Standards, not Joint Assessment or Self-Regulations!
Hold DOLE accountable for the Kentex Tragedy!
Penalize and criminalize the violators of Occupational Health and Safety Standards!
End impunity of OHS violations in the Philippines!
Repeal DO 131-13! Pass Workers SHIELD!
Struggle against Contractualization! Workers fight for Wages, Jobs and Rights!