Factory fire puts spotlight on working conditions in Philippines

Factory fire puts spotlight on working conditions in Philippines
Fire investigators look for evidence amongst the ruins of a footwear factory in suburban Manila on May 14, 2015, a day after the it was gutted by fire.

MANILA - A fire that killed 72 people in a rubber slipper factory in the Philippines on Wednesday has shone a spotlight on what trade unions say are the often unsafe working conditions in Southeast Asia's fastest-growing country.

The fire, which gutted the two-storey factory in the capital, Manila, started when sparks from a welding machine set ablaze flammable chemicals. It was one of the country's worst industrial fires.

Labour groups said lax implementation of safety rules and a lack of site inspections by the government were among the reasons why the Kentex Manufacturing Inc factory became a death trap. "There is a culture of complacency in government," said Alan Tanjusay, spokesman of the Associated Labor Unions-TUCP, the biggest grouping of workers unions in the country.

Labour Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz initially said Kentex had complied with general labour, safety and health standards. But on Saturday, she said Kentex had illegally subcontracted workers from an unregistered agency.

Baldoz said only three-fifths of businesses across the country were compliant with labour standards last year and the government was stepping up checks and hiring more people to carry them out.

The fire highlighted work safety in developing Asia, and was reminiscent of a factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 which killed more than 1,000 people.

Eufracia Taylor, Asia analyst at global risk consultant Verisk Maplecroft, said that despite commitments to improve working and safety standards after the Bangladesh factory collapse, problems persisted. "There remains a gap between the targets of companies and the actions implemented by suppliers throughout Asia," Taylor said.

Windows on the Philippine factory's second floor, where most victims were found, were covered with steel mesh that was meant to stop workers from stealing slippers by tossing them out, Kentex lawyer Renato Paraiso said in a television interview.

Survivors said the factory's main gate was padlocked with only a small door open when the fire broke out. Some survivors climbed over a perimeter wall to get out.

Companies usually pass regular safety checks imposed by the government because they only need to submit documents, and often no physical inspection is conducted, said Tanjusay. "They don't get to see the actual working environment," he said.

Construction worker Emmanuel Madiclom lost his 50-year-old wife, 27-year old daughter, and a sister in law in the fire. They were all manual workers at Kentex.

He said his wife often worked 12-hour shifts, especially when there was a big order, as there was this week. She was paid a maximum of 500 pesos ($11.25) for a 12-hour shift, equivalent to the minimum wage for a regular 9-hour shift, he said. "At first, she complained of the heat and of a foul smell from the rubber but she got used to it," Madiclom said, adding his wife did not get social security.

Tanjusay said most Kentex labourers worked on a quota basis, and were paid just 150-200 pesos a day, below the minimum wage, because of layers of subcontracting. "Our assumption is almost 90 per cent of local factories are problematic, with violations in workplace arrangement, safe working conditions, wages and social benefits," he said, adding these did not include most multinational firms which he said adhered to strict labour and safety standards.

More than two-thirds of the country's nearly 40 million workers suffered from labour law violations, Tanjusay said. He added his group has been urging the government to limit labour sub-contracting to three layers from about eight to nine now.

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