DOJ creates special panel on Kentex factory fire

MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Justice (DOJ) has created a special panel that will determine possible criminal and administrative offenses committed in the Valenzuela  factory fire that claimed at least 72 lives on May 13.

In a department order dated June 1 but released Wednesday, June 3, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima directed the 6-member panel to review the reports of the Inter-Agency Anti-Arson Task Force, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and other official reports on the blaze that hit the Kentex Manufacturing factory.

De Lima's department order came on the day President Benigno Aquino III announced that the Palace is eyeing charges against the Kentex owners and Valenzuela officials. (READ: No push from Aquino to pass pro-worker laws)

Aquino had already announced initial violations in the Kentex workplace outlined by the Bureau of Fire Protection, including the lack of a fire sprinkler, a fire alarm system, and a protected fire exit. 

If time permits, De Lima ordered the panel to evaluate findings by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) on alleged violations against the Labor Code and other labor laws by the Kentex management.

Panel composition

The DOJ panel would be composed of: 

The panel will identify criminal and administrative offenses, and the personalities to be charged. It will also assist in the preparation of complaints to be filed either with the public prosecutor or the Office of the Ombudsman for criminal cases, and other appropriate bodies for administrative cases.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Aquino ordered fire safety inspections for the estimated 300,000 establishments in Metro Manila.

The Kentex fire is viewed as a setback for the Philippine manufacturing industry which, as in other developing countries, attracts foreign investors partly due to cheap labor.

The tragedy bared glaring violations of general labor standards by Kentex. Many fear that the same conditions persist in other factories and plants in the industrial area. (READ: Metro Manila needs more labor laws compliance officers)

Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz had ordered a nationwide special assessment and surprise visits of all manufacturing establishments, urging a "full stop" of "sweatshop" practices. (READ: Deaths in PH factory show need for decent jobs)

Reforms sought

Labor groups have seized the unfortunate incident as an opportunity to push for pro-worker reforms, including stronger regulation, if not a complete ban, on contractual labor.

The DOLE had already earlier established that Kentex owes some 99 illegally subcontracted workers at least P7.8 million in unpaid wages, excluding benefits such as overtime pay, night differential, 13th month pay, holiday pay, vacation and sick leave pay, refund of cash bond, and others.

The use of a subcontractor is allowed under Article 106 of the Labor Code, unless the subcontractor is not capitalized or is merely acting as an agent to hire workers.

Unscrupulous employers often misclassify workers as contracted from a subcontractor or at times as independent contractors to relegate them to casual status as opposed to regular employees who enjoy a host of workers' benefits.

This enables companies to reduce manufacturing costs, 40% of which is often allocated for labor.

Baldoz and labor groups also reiterated their call to criminalize grave violations of occupational safety and health standards by employers, as the 4-decades-old Labor Code merely imposes a fine for OSH offenses regardless of lives lost. – Rappler.com