SUSAN V. OPLE
Published — Tuesday 19 May 2015
Last Wednesday, 72 workers perished in a fire at a factory in Valenzuela City while trapped in the second floor of the slipper factory. The gruesome details surrounding the fire sparked outrage among workers’ families, trade unions, the media and Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz who called the factory owners as “immoral.”
Based on first-hand accounts from the survivors of the fire, the factory has been shortchanging its workers by paying them below the prescribed minimum wage and not contributing its share to finance the workers’ social and health insurance coverage. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who personally visited the factory, also noted that most of the victims of the fire were found near barred windows on the factory’s second floor. The fire started when a menial welding job threw sparks that inflamed nearby chemicals resulting in a blazing trail of death within the factory itself.
The calls for a thorough probe came swift not only from the labor sector but also from Congress. Ironically, the factory had to burn before the government uncovered glaring violations of labor laws and standards. The factory employed subcontracted workers through an illegal conduit, meaning a labor supply agency that has not registered with the Department of Labor and Employment. As such, not even the factory owner knew how many workers reported for work on the day of the fire. Management had no personnel files on the illegally subcontracted workers that were underpaid and made to work long hours on a piecemeal basis.
Safety and health standards are there for a reason — to save lives. It is disturbing to note that the factory actually passed the government’s occupational safety assessment visit in September of last year. How many more factories were given similar passing marks but may be firetraps in the making? How could the labor inspectors miss out on the gross labor violations of the factory owners? Seventy-two lives would have been spared had there been a more incisive assessment on the company’s safety and health programs last year.
International Labor Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder took note that what transpired was a “preventable accident” as he pushed for stronger health and safety measures in the Philippine workplace. “Once again, we find ourselves mourning workers whose lives have been cut short as a result of workplace accidents. Often such accidents are preventable,” ILO’s top official said. This writer fears that the tragedy will likely recur unless the workers themselves speak up and call attention to the firetrap factories that they work for. The labor department must set up a hotline to receive anonymous complaints. The Bureau of Fire Protection must also take its job more seriously: they need to send out teams to factory rows in and outside Metro Manila to check on rapid response protocols when a fire does break out inside these factories. Local governments must be more persistent in its own onsite inspections and not be complacent that national agencies are paying attention to every factory and workplace in their respective jurisdictions.
The anonymity of subcontracted workers must be a thing of the past. No management must be allowed to get away with hiring people without even a fig leaf of attachment to its personnel division. This strikes at the core of human dignity, for workers to serve management in anonymity, with no benefits at all. It took a fire to uncover all these sordid details. The workers who perished deserve dignified burials with their families given full government assistance. What about the factory owners? Their silence will not be for long. With Congress initiating an investigation into management’s culpability, it is but a matter of time before the owners are made to speak up and explain why it has been cheating its hardworking employees all these years. How sad that it took 72 lives to make such explanations even remotely possible.