A few workers managed to break through the steel window grills but most did not, leaving 72 dead. Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters
On 13 May, a fierce blaze took hold of Kentex Manufacturing’s slipper factory in Valenzuela city, north of the Philippines capital, Manila. The fire lasted seven hours and claimed the lives of 72 workers. It was the worst factory fire the Philippines has ever seen. Only 45 workers escaped.
The fire was started by welding work on the first floor that triggered an explosion of the flammable chemicals used to make rubber. Eyewitnesses have described how the fire climbed the building and cut off the second floor, where workers were making flip-flops. Walden Bello, a former Congressman who visited the scene and talked to survivors, reported that workers on the first floor were only able to escape through a locked door because they found a key.
On the second floor, most ran to the rear of the building but, according to some survivors, there were no other exits and workers were quickly overwhelmed by thick smoke from the burning rubber and chemicals. Attempts to escape through the windows were scuppered by the grills that covered them. Witnesses outside report seeing workers shaking and rattling the grills until they could no longer be seen.
It will take at least a month before most of the victims can be identified. Of the 72 people who died, 69 were burned beyond recognition.
Two investigations are ongoing: one by the House of Representatives and one by an inter-agency taskforce. Both have yet to submit reports. But local NGOs and unions have been speaking to eyewitnesses, and a number of irregularities in the implementation of health and safety standards and building and fire codes have emerged.
The factory was required to have a raft of permits from different bodies including a business permit from the local authority, a fire permit from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) and a certificate of compliance from the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE). It should also have had a special permit for the welding that caused the fire.
But the factory either ignored or was allowed to circumvent many of the safety procedures. Regarding the welding permit, Kentex’s lawyer says the work was done by a third party and “we relied on their manifestation of being experts and authorities in their line of work, we already assumed that they would secure all necessary permits and requirements for them to do their jobs and execute the agreement to fix our shutter doors”.
The fire permit? Although the company told us that it had received a permit, which, it claims, bolsters its statement that there were “sufficient fire exits”, the BFP says it never issued a permit. In fact, it had given Kentex a warning “notice to comply” in July. (We asked Kentex’s lawyer about this apparently conflicting evidence; he has not yet replied.)
BFP officer Ian Lunas told the media that the violations noted at the time included a failure to service the fire extinguishers and a lack of fire drills, alarm system and sprinkler system. Survivors reported that they had never had a fire drill and nor seen a safety inspector.
So why was a provisional business permit and a certificate of compliance issued when both required a fire inspection certificate? Both the local authorities and the government say they were not notified by the BFP of its concerns about Kentex. Meanwhile, Kentex points to these certificates as evidence of the fact that it was fully compliant.
The blame game is now slowly shifting upwards as, confronted with these testimonies, the authorities seem unclear on the procedures that should have been followed and blame each other. DOLE, which gave Kentex a certificate of compliance in September 2014, has now reversed its position and is condemning Kentex, with the labour secretary, Rosalinda Baldoz, describing the company’s behaviour as “disgusting” and “immoral”. DOLE is looking at filing a number of charges against Kentex, and a spokesman for the BFP says the company’s directors could face charges for safety lapses ranging from six months to six years in jail.
The original sin is in the government efforts to hasten the process of doing business.
But Josua Mata, secretary of the trade union Sentro, tells us: “It seems that the original sin is in the government efforts to hasten the process of doing business.”
The Philippines, like other emerging economies, is eager to improve its position in ratings such as the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” index. In 2010, the government issued a memorandum that effectively required local governments to cut red tape in the processing of business permits. Valenzuela was considered a model example of this. As part of this approach, Kentex was granted a temporary permit to operate, pending a future inspection that never took place.
Sentro and other unions have called on the national and local governments to fully enforce occupational health and safety standards and to punish violators.
DOLE allowed companies with less than 200 workers to conduct their own health and safety inspections. As Bello puts it: “DOLE was essentially allowing companies to police themselves and so to escape any serious sanctions.”
The tragedy at Kentex, says Mata, “was facilitated by a mixture of the government’s misguided drive to improve its ranking on the doing business index, lax implementation of regulations, labour contracting and the usual corporate greed”.
“Never again” pleas and promises have been quickly made. The government says it is determined to ensure strict compliance with occupational health and safety standards and prevent a repeat of the fire. The labour department and the BFP have both committed to ramping up efforts to ensure proper working conditions and to intensify labour inspections. The deaths should serve as a wake-up call for businesses, Baldoz says. The interior secretary, Manuel Roxas, has promised to ensure that the fire code is implemented properly. The local governmentannounced that the BFP and the labour department would conduct a joint audit of 1,700 industrial establishments in Valenzuela.
The Valenzuela fire happened on the second anniversary of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, created to maintain minimum safety standards in the Bangladesh textile industry, after the Rana Plaza disaster in which more than 1,100 workers lost their lives. But given its domestic nature – Kentex produced slippers for the local market – Valenzuela is not receiving much international attention. However, it highlights the same risks of death at work asRana Plaza, and the Tazreen factory fire, also in Bangladesh, in 2012.
“The lessons of Rana Plaza have still not been learned,” says the UN working group on business and human rights. The Kentex and Rana Plaza tragedies, and many others, show a clear pattern. In order to compete, factories offer low costs at the expense of decent wages and proper health and safety standards. Workers, especially women, have few alternatives other than accepting exploitative working conditions in garment factories. And governments eager to accommodate business facilitate this.