Deaths in PH factory fire show need for decent jobs

MANILA, Philippines – Emmanuel Madiclom, a 54-year-old grandfather of 4, would wake up to the sounds made by his wife who prepared his breakfast, and picked his work clothes for the day.

Marietta “Marie” Madiclom helped out in her family's small store and worked for the rest of the day in a local factory. Like many Filipino mothers, Marietta managed a household but also held a job to help keep the family afloat.

For 15 years, Marietta toiled as a low wager, paid weekly per sack of footwear she painted. At 50 years old, it was taking her longer to paint the letters on the rubber slipper, which meant going home much later but without the corresponding overtime pay, Emmanuel said.

On May 13, Marietta and at least 71 other workers died in a massive fire that gutted the two-storey factory of Kentex Manufacturing Corporation in Valenzuela City.

The fatal factory blaze is seen as a setback for the Philippine manufacturing industry and sheds light on the alleged lax implementation of occupational safety and health standards in local sweatshops.

Windows at the second floor of the factory were barred by metal railings, trapping many as the fire raged. Witnesses said they saw workers extending their hands out these windows, in a desperate plea for help.

Other factories and plants line the area in the village of Ugong in Valenzuela where the Kentex factory is located. Villagers in house clothes and slippers would congregate in front of tall gates to enter sweatshops where they work as low-wage earners.

Labor coalition Nagkaisa fears harsh working conditions persist in these factories, urging the labor department to conduct surprise inspections.

Emmanuel himself said his wife never got law-mandated workers' benefits such as an assured minimum wage, Social Security System and PhilHealth benefits, holiday pay, 13th month pay, medical leave, and other allowances outlined in the Labor Code despite her 15 years of work with Kentex. 

There were days Marietta would go home with an income of less than P100 ($2.50) despite her long hours, he added. 

In its 2012 country profile of the Philippines, the International Labor Organization (ILO) noted that "the share of women employed to the total of employment with excessive hours has grown over the years."

"On average, women worked slightly longer hours than men, whether in their primary job or in all jobs they may have," the ILO said of the Philippines.

Emmanuel said there were also days when Marietta had no work and no income for the day, when Kentex had no footwear orders. 

Worker safety

Emmanuel and Marietta raised 5 children and sent them to school using the money they earned as an independent construction worker and factory worker, respectively. Some of their children were able to obtain college degrees.

Joanna, one of their 5 children who finished high school, was among the bodies burned with Marietta inside the Kentex factory.

Their remains, scorched beyond recognition, have yet to be identified, along with 67 others.

Initial reports said a welding activity on the first floor of the factory caused sparks to ignite nearby chemicals, which in turn quickly set on fire flammable materials in the factory.

A fact-finding team composed of militant labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno, the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development, the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, and the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research alleged that Kentex mishandled and mislabeled chemicals.

The team also said that Kentex had no fire alarm systems and did not provide fire safety training for its workers.

The initial police probe also found that there are no fire exits in the second floor of the factory.

Emmanuel said Marietta never really took notice of these supposed violations inside the factory. For her, it was just a building where she earned a living.

"Di niya na inisip 'yun (She didn't think about that)," he told Rappler.

He said she would often complain of the smell and the heat during her early days at Kentex but eventually got used to the working environment.

Decent work 

Part of the government's commitment to uphold international labor standards is monitoring and regulating businesses so that the jobs created are not only mere sources of income but are also safe, secure, and decent.

The ILO describes decent work as one that "involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, provides security in the workplace and social protection for workers and their families, and gives people the freedom to express their concerns, to organize and to participate in decisions that affect their lives."

Labor groups have seized the aftermath of the tragic Valenzuela fire as an opportunity to push for pro-worker reforms, including the passage of a Security of Tenure Bill that would limit job contracting and subcontracting.

Such a bill would regulate job contracting, a system allowed under Article 106 of the Labor Code and which involves workers being outsourced from capitaliized general contractors.

On the first day of its conference on the factory fire, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) found that Kentex used a dummy which acted as its subcontractor – CJC Manpower Services.

The workers deployed by CJC to Kentex were not even CJC hires but were assigned to it by Kentex itself, the DOLE found. CJC was an unregistered subcontractor and was "underpaying its workers," among other violations. 

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

This enables companies to reduce costs. 

Around 40% of manufacturing cost is labor, said lawyer Noel Balsicas of the People Management Association of the Philippines.

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

Women workers

Like her mother Marietta, Joanna worked for years at Kentex. 

Both of them were hired through a "handler" who got their salaries from Kentex and distributed it to them under what is known as the pakyawan (wholesale or package deal) system.

Under the pakyawan system, the factory owner taps the handler to recruit and distribute pay to factory workers without the necessary job contracts and worker protection required by law.

Without a contract and a clear job description, Marietta was made to do multiple tasks inside the factory, including general cleaning.

Marietta developed her own ways of coping, said Emmanuel. She would often bring  home her fellow women-workers for birthday celebrations and other similar gatherings.

Marietta was considered a mother by most of the younger women-workers at Kentex, he said.

"Para bang siya 'yung senior doon [sa grupo] (It was like she was the senior of the group)," he added, citing Marietta's long service at Kentex.

Marietta's Kentex friends were also hired through the pakyawan system. Without job security and even a contract to begin with, they can be terminated anytime.

An ILO study released Wednesday, May 20, revealed that one in 4 workers around the world are without stable employment.

Occupational safety and health

On the heels of the massive fire, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz and labor groups renewed their call to criminalize grave occupational safety and health (OSH) violations.

According to official figures, 161 employees in the Philippines suffered fatal occupational or work-related injuries in 2011 – lower than in previous years, said ILO.

ILO said, however, that the number of employees who suffered from occupational diseases in 2011 remained high at 85,483.

Likewise, militant labor group KMU said that at least 25 workers have died in factory fires since 2010, apparently excluding the latest incident.

A fire at a Novo Jeans and Shorts factory in Butuan City killed 17  workers on May 9, 2012, while a fire at Asia Micro Tech killed 8 more on April 30, 2014.

Over 40 construction workers have died while on site since 2010, when President Benigno Aquino III took office, KMU added.

In 2015 alone, at least 18 construction workers died and more injured while in their workplaces.

The partial collapse of a Bulacan warehouse under construction on January 28 claimed 12 lives, including a pregnant woman and two minors. (READ: Builder of collapsed warehouse flouts labor rules)

A Taguig construction site accident also killed two and injured 11 others on February 4.

In May, a massize rock fell on makeshift homes in an Oriental Mindoro construction site of the Sta Clara International Corporation, killing two workers and hurting 5 others.

While DOLE branded the Mindoro incident as a "totally unavoidable accident," labor groups condemned the department for allegedly weak labor inspection.

Partido Manggagawa Chair Rene Magtubo said there are around 2,000 trade unionists nationwide ready to be deputized as labor inspectors, but DOLE spokesperson Nicon Fameronag countered by saying this is a government function.

The United States in December announced a $1-million grant to the Philippines through the ILO meant for DOLE's labor laws compliance system. – Rappler.com