Valenzuela fire death trap highlights sweatshop abuses

MANILA, Philippines – The deaths of 72 people in a fire that gutted a footwear factory in Valenzuela city has exposed abusive conditions for millions of poor and desperate workers across the Philippines

The tragedy, in a long row of gated factories in an industrial hub of Manila on Wednesday, was one of the country's deadliest workplace accidents.

But the alleged exploitation of workers at the factory, where lax safety standards caused the fire, is anything but unusual across the Philippines, according to the government and unions.

"The deaths should serve as a wake-up call for businessmen to stop these abuses....They should give their employees dignity," Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz told Agence France-Presse.

Baldoz scored the owners of the company that owned the factory, Kentex Manufacturing, branding them as "immoral" and accusing them of a raft of illegal labor practices. (READ: Baldoz: Valenzuela factory owners 'immoral')

The workers, who produced cheap sandals and slippers for the domestic market, were paid well below the minimum wage of P481  ($10.90) a day and were denied a host of legally mandated benefits, survivors of the blaze and victims' relatives told AFP.

They said workers were forced to toil 12-hour days, 7 days a week without overtime, had legally-required social security and health insurance payments withheld, and were forced to constantly inhale foul-smelling chemicals.

The government said the fire was caused by welding being carried out near flammable chemicals, highlighting what workers described as a casual approach to workplace safety in which there were no fire drills.

"This is a very common situation. This is just one factory but it represents the... kind of factories in this country," Alan Tanjusay, spokesman of the largest labour federation in the Philippines, told AFP.

He said compliance with safety standards was "really bad" not just in factories, but also construction sites where workers often did not wear protective clothing.

Poverty, corruption

The Philippines has very strong labor laws and a vocal union movement, but the massive numbers of impoverished people and endemic corruption throughout society are two key factors that allow workers' exploitation to flourish.

Roughly one quarter of the nation's 100 million people live in poverty, which is defined as surviving on about one dollar a day, according to government data.

High school dropouts desperate to support relatives are particularly easy prey, according to  Baldoz.

"They have no regular jobs. When someone offers them a job, they grab it," she said.

Baldoz said the Aquino administration, which has been in power for 5 years, had worked hard to improve labor conditions. She cited the closing down of 10,000 of an estimated 15,000 illegal employment agencies. 

Those agencies are an integral part of the exploitation chain because they hire workers as casuals, allowing companies to turn a blind eye to exploitation such as withholding pensions and paying below the minimum wage.

Baldoz also pointed to the establishment of arbitration courts that resolved labour disputes in as little as 30 days.

But Baldoz said that factory owners and labor unions were responsible for ensuring that these safety laws were observed.

'Wolves guarding sheep'

This voluntary compliance is one of the big problems, according to the Partido ng Manggagawa (PM), a small political group representing workers. 

"Voluntary compliance and self-assessment means that the government is asking the wolf to guard the sheep. No wonder the sheep get slaughtered," PM chairman Renato Magtubo said.

Valenzuela promotes itself as one of the city's "premier business and industrial centers."

But workers at surrounding factories – which manufacture products such as cosmetics, plastics, paper plates and small appliances – recounted similar tales of exploitation as those at the Kentex factory.

They emerged from garrison-like compounds, surrounded by towering fences topped with barbed wire and with security guards patrolling the perimeter, with stories of long hours for little pay.

A common theme was being paid well below the minimum wage.

"I don't have enough for food and other expenses. Sometimes, I borrow money," said one worker aged 36 who moved to Manila from the poor central island province of Masbate after dropping out of high school in the 1990s.

'Give us time'

In a forum organized by the factory owners on Friday, May 15, Kentex lawyer Renato Paraiso told survivors and the families of the victims and casualties that they would give them money – the due salary on the 15th of the month plus a few days' work and overtime – on Saturday, "just to tide them over."

Paraiso asked for patience in awaiting other benefits due them under the law, as people from the Kentex administrative and accounting office also perished in the fire that burnt company records as well.

"Just give us a chance. We will provide all your benefits as provided under the law," he said.

The lawyer also said Kentex is trying to get in touch with the agencies that supplied some of its manpower, after it learned that these labor providers did not remit the employees' contribution to the Social Security System (SSS).

Kentex gave the full amount to these agencies, the lawyer said, adding that the company will provide legal assistance, if needed, to those who may want to pursue legal action against the manpower agencies.

Paraiso also said that Kentex is coordinating with local government officials regarding the agencies. –

 US$1 = P 44.5