Baldoz: Valenzuela factory owners 'immoral'

MANILA, Philippines – Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz on Friday, May 15, described the owners of a footwear factory where a fire claimed 72 lives as "immoral" and accused them of illegally exploiting their workers.

In an exclusive interview with Agence France-Presse, Baldoz said that the owners of Kentex Manufacturing had broken employment laws that were meant to guarantee minimum salaries, pensions, and social security.

“They are not only illegal, they are immoral. This employer, they don't have a sense of social responsibility," Baldoz said.

Seventy-two workers died when a fire tore through Kentex's two-storey factory, which produced cheap sandals and slippers for the local market, in an industrial area in Valenzuela City on Wednesday, May 12.

A welding activity close to flammable chemicals ignited the fire, according to local authorities.

Nearly all of those killed were trapped on the second floor of the factory, with steel bars over windows that prevented the workers' escape.

The company had provided no fire safety training to their employers, according to survivors of the blaze, as well as victims' relatives and unions.

The surviving employees also accused the company of paying salaries well below minimum wage, as well as withholding pensions, health benefits and other forms of social security.

'No excuse'

Baldoz confirmed the company had used a "fly-by-night subcontractor" to hire casual workers, with the middle-man agency not paying required salaries and benefits.  (READ: Gov't to probe 'pakyawan' system in Valenzuela factory)

"We will not accept their excuse," Baldoz said.

The labor chief made the statement a day after she said that Kentex complied with occupational safety requirements. (READ: Valenzuela factory passed occupational safety checks – DOLE)

On Thursday, May 14, Baldoz said DOLE records  show that “the firm was assessed to have been compliant” in September 2014.

After inspecting the site on Thursday, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II scored the company’s safety standards, stating that no welding activity should have been allowed in a place with flammable chemicals. 

He also pledged to investigate, among others, why 69 of the 72 people killed had been trapped on the second floor behind steel bar-enclosed windows and with no viable fire exit. (READ: We'll make culprits pay for Valenzuela deaths – Roxas)

Militant labor groups have accused the government of being partly responsible for failing to carry out proper inspections that would ensure compliance with labor laws.

About 50 labor union activists picketed the burned Kentex factory on Friday, criticizing authorities and the factory management as they waved banners saying: "The guilty should be punished" and "Justice for the workers of Kentex."

AFP was unable to contact management or spokespeople for Kentex.

'ILO: Preventable accident'

In a statement on Friday, International Labor Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder condoled with the families of the victims of what he called a "preventable accident" and 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," Ryder said.

He added, "Everyone has the right to work in a safe and healthy environment, regardless of the industry they are in or the type of work that they do.."

The ILO chief said that employers can make workplaces safe "by improving working conditions in factories, including carrying out regular inspections to ensure that factories comply with structural, fire and electrical safety; and by ensuring workers' rights, especially freedom of association and collective bargaining."

"The ILO stands ready to assist, working with employers, workers and their organizations and all stakeholders to improve safety and health conditions in the workplace," he said.

Philippine authorities have promised a thorough investigation of the deadly blaze, and to hold those responsible accountable. –