Valenzuela lawmaker hits mayor over Kentex permit

MANILA, Philippines – Valenzuela 2nd District Representative Magtanggol Gunigundo said on Wednesday, May 20, that Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian should be held accountable for issuing a "provisional" business permit to footwear manufacturer Kentex Manufacturing Corporation.

Gunigundo said the grant of a provisional permit to Kentex – owner of the footwear factory fire that killed at least 72 people in his city last week – violated the Philippine Fire Code, as a fire safety inspection certificate must first be secured before the issuance of the permit.

"There has been a violation of the Fire Code that has been clearly spelled out in the hearing, and people accountable would have to face the music," Gunigundo told Rappler in an interview after Wednesday's House labor committee hearing on the deadly blaze.

A business permit, also known as a mayor's permit, is needed to legally operate in a locality. Kentex, however, has not been issued a fire inspection safety certificate by the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP).

During the hearing, Gunigundo cited Section 7 of Republic Act  9514 which considers "a fire safety inspection" a "prerequisite to the grants of permits and/or licenses by local governments and other government agencies concerned." 

He stressed that Gatchalian and the head of Valenzuela's Business Permit and Licensing Office must face sanctions as outlined in RA 9514 or the Fire Code in the Philippines.

Before the House panel, Gunigundo stressed both the criminal and administrative penalties provided under RA 9514.

DEADLY BLAZE. A fire razes a slipper factory in Valenzuela City on May 13, 2015. File photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

DEADLY BLAZE. A fire razes a slipper factory in Valenzuela City on May 13, 2015.

File photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

Post-audit process 

It was revealed during the hearing that the Valenzuela government considered a fire safety inspection certificate as part of its post-audit process or a requirement only after granting the provisional permits to businesses.

In a previous interview, the Valenzuela mayor had defended the city's issuance of a provisional business permit to Kentex by invoking a joint department circular.

But Gunigundo said there is "nothing" in a mere department circular "that authorizes" a local government unit "to circumvent the Fire Code."

Citing the interior department's memorandum circular 2011-05, Gatchalian had also said it was the BFP's duty to notify the local government of businesses' non-compliance with fire safety standards.

"The [circular] said very clearly that they have to report back to the local government unit whatever negative findings they had. In the case of Kentex, they never came back to us. But in other cases in Valenzuela, they did come back to us," Gatchalian had explained.

Commenting on Gatchalian's defense, Gunigundo said: "Well, that's nothing. A law is a law. Only another law can repeal a law."

 FIRE VICTIMS. Most of the remains of workers who died in a May 13 factory fire have yet to be identified. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

'No politics involved'

Gunigundo, who  is on his last congressional term, said his call for Gatchalian's accountability is not politically-motivated. He said the sheer magnitude of the Valenzuela fire goes beyond local politics.

Gunigundo is a known political rival of the Gatchalians in Valenzuela. Aside from him, his wife has also been defeated by a Gatchalian in the Valenzuela mayoralty race.

Asked if he will run for mayor in 2016, Gunigundo said he is keeping his options open and can always return to the private sector.

Kentex's two-story factory in Valenzuela caught fire on May 13, claiming at least 72 lives, and injuring others.

The deadly blaze is seen as a setback for the Philippine manufacturing industry and sheds light on local sweatshops' non-compliance with occupational safety and health (OSH) standards.

PROTEST. Filipino workers offer flowers as they stage a demonstration at the gate of a burnt footwear factory in Valenzuela city, east of Manila, Philippines, May 15 2015. Photo by Francis R. Malasig/EPA

PROTEST. Filipino workers offer flowers as they stage a demonstration at the gate of a burnt footwear factory in Valenzuela city, east of Manila, Philippines, May 15 2015. Photo by Francis R.

Malasig/EPA

Eye-opener

On the heels of the massive fire, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz as well as labor groups renewed their call for the criminalization of grave OSH violations, which would require amending the 1974 Labor Code.

With windows at the second floor of the burnt Kentex factory barred by metal railings, witnesses said they saw workers extending their hands out in a desperate plea for help.

This early into the probe, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has established that Kentex had flouted labor rules by allegedly using a dummy as its subcontractor. (READ: Valenzuela factory fire 'rallying point' vs contractual labor)

It was also found that Kentex and its subcontractor CJC Manpower Services underpaid workers and withheld their law-mandated benefits. (READ: Kentex no-show at first DOLE meeting on deadly fire)

Other factories and plants line the area in the village of Ugong in Valenzuela, where the Kentex factory is located. 

Labor coalition Nagkaisa fears harsh working conditions persist in these factories, urging the labor department to conduct surprise inspections. (READ: Deaths in PH factory fire show need for decent jobs)

Despite being an industrial city, Valenzuela has very few active and genuine labor unions, labor leaders lamented. 

Philippine trade unionists have decried dwindling labor union density, mainly blaming waning unionism to aggressive union-busting by employers. 

DOLE Undersecretary Rebecca Chato said she has urged labor leaders to innovate in their campaign strategies.

Latest state figures show newly registered unions in the Philippines are at their lowest since 1976, with only 126 new unions registered in 2013. – with reports by Reynaldo Santos Jr/Rappler.com