A fire in a sandal factory in a northern Manila suburb claimed the lives of 72 workers, mostly women, who were trapped in a two-story building on May 13. It is being called the deadliest factory fire in Philippine history. The owner of the factory, Kentex Manufacturing Incorporated, employs 200-300 workers in the production of rubber slippers, including “Havanas”, an imitation of the flip-flops brand Havaianas.
According to an independent fact-finding team led by the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD), and the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), the fire began in the ground floor after welding sparks from the factory gate, which was being repaired, ignited highly flammable and improperly stored chemicals placed on the floor.
The hazardous chemicals lacked proper labels and workers were not informed about the danger. Though the government certified Kentex's full compliance with safety standards in 2014, the factory had no fire alarms, no sprinklers, and no fire exits. According to the fact-finding team, “workers who had been working for years in Kentex have not experienced any fire and safety drill conducted by the management”.
With the gate for trucks locked, employees only had access to a single exit at the time of the fire. Even the windows were blocked by metal grills and chicken wire—put in place to prevent workers from stealing products made inside the factory. IOHSAD advocacy officer Nadia de Leon shares the testimonies of Kentex workers and those in the vicinity of the factory during the fire:
Of the 72 dead bodies, 69 were retrieved on the second floor. Thus majority of the dead workers were trapped in the second floor… Witnesses even saw the workers on the second floor shouting, but they couldn’t open the windows, they couldn’t escape because of the grills.
Nadia de Leon also highlights how the government of President Benigno Aquino III shares accountability for the May 13 tragedy. So far, officials’ response has not inspired much confidence, such as the knee-jerk reaction of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), which responded to the fire by assuring the public that Kentex complied with safety regulations:
The DOLE has a big responsibility for the tragedy. This is especially because Labor Sec. Rosalinda Baldoz admitted that their office’s inspection of Kentex eight months ago had the result of the factory’s being compliant with safety standards. This shows how unreliable and questionable their system of inspecting factories is.
According to journalist Tonyo Cruz, the Kentex fire is but the latest in a series of workplace fires and related incidents that have claimed the lives of many workers since 2010:
- The January 2015 collapse of a warehouse wall in Guiguinto, Bulacan, killed 12 workers.
- The May 2014 fire at an illegal electronics warehouse in Pasay City killed eight workers who'd been locked up by owners.
- The May 2012 fire at the Novo Jeans store’s living quarters in Butuan City that left 17 workers dead.
- The May 2011 Eton Greenbelt Residences incident, where 11 workers fell to their deaths.
The recent horrific incident in Manila has raised concerns not only about health and safety conditions in factories across the country, but also the problems of contractualization and low wages. The majority of Kentex's workers, for instance, are considered independent contractors—they graduate to “casual” employee after 10 years on the job, and only attain “regular” worker status after a whopping 20 years.
Workers, moreover, revealed to the fact-finding team that they received a daily wage of Php 202 to P220 (about $5), depending on their years on the job—far below the P466 ($11) daily minimum wage for private-sector workers in metropolitan Manila. There are also workers hired on a piece-rate basis who work for 12 hours a day with no formal contracts.
For writer and teacher Candy Cruz Datu, the sorry condition of Filipinos who are forced to accept unjust working conditions just to survive is an indictment of the Noynoy Aquino government’s empty campaign promise to eliminate corruption and poverty.
Some netizens also questioned President Aquino's silence and absence in the wake of the tragedy. Meanwhile, workers from other economic sectors from all over the country have been quick to express solidarity and support for the Kentex workers and their families.