Labor laws compliance system is 'landmark reform' – DOLE

MANILA, Philippines – As it completes its probe into the May 13 Kentex factory fire that claimed at least 72 lives, the labor department maintained that its present system of monitoring the compliance of businesses with labor laws is a key improvement in promoting decent work.

Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz on Saturday, May 30, regarded as "landmark reform" her pet project dubbed the Labor Laws Compliance System (LLCS).

This, despite widespread accusations, on the heels of the deadly fire, that there is lax monitoring by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) of occupational safety and health (OSH) standards in factories and plants.

No less than the Kentex factory was able to secure a general labor standards and OSH certificate of compliance under the LLCS on September 18, 2014, after an assessment by Engineer Joseph G Vedasto on March 17 of that same year.

Introduced in August 2013, the LLCS replaced the more immediately punitive and enforcement-heavy Labor Standards Enforcement Framework (LSEF) in workplace inspection.

The LLCS, which uses technology to immediately record workplace assessment results, has a more comprehensive checklist of laws that an establishment must comply with.

Vedasto, however, failed to bring his LLCS gadget during the Kentex assessment for fear of getting mugged. He cited rumored criminal elements in Ugong village, Valenzuela City, where the factory is located.

Vedasto is under investigation. Unlike local fire officials, he was not immediately relieved, with the DOLE invoking due process.

DOLE Metro Manila Director Alex Avila, who approved Kentex's compliance certificate based on Vedasto's assessment, was ordered to produce a written explanation about the certificate he issued.

'Developmental approach'

The LLCS uses a "developmental approach" by way of a more inclusive compliance assessment, which includes representation from the workers themselves, and direct feedback to the employer on aspects of the workplace that demand reform.

Previously, the LSEF merely provided an errant business owner 10 days to correct violations on general labor standards without providing free state assistance to reach full compliance.

The shift from LSEF to LLCS in 2013 was prompted by a 2009 International Labor Organization (ILO) report that said the labor inspection system then had no major impact on the compliance by businesses with labor laws.

The LLCS has been under attack since the May 13 fire that gutted the two-story factory of Valenzuela-based slipper maker Kentex Manufacturing, killing at least 72 workers trapped inside and injuring others who were able to escape the 5-hour inferno.

Labor coalition Nagkaisa went as far as saying that the LLCS was tantamount to allowing employers to dictate the terms of their compliance process.

Due diligence

Baldoz on Saturday, May 30, issued a stern warning to compliance officers under the LLCS, who replaced so-called labor inspectors under LSEF, to "tread both the moral and legal path" in discharging their duties.

"We are serious in implementing the LLCS and there is no rolling back the gains we have achieved thus far," said Baldoz.

Baldoz' comments on Saturday hint at a stronger call for Labor Laws Compliance Officers (LLCOs) to go the extra mile in their labor laws assessment of factories and other workplaces.

LLCO Vedasto was strongly criticized in a House hearing for alleged lack of due diligence when he inspected the Kentex factory, merely relying on the LLCS checklist instead of basic human instincts.

A plain view of the factory shows its second floor windows have metal railings, which transformed Kentex factory into a death trap noon of May 13.

Witnesses of the hours-long ordeal saw extended hands from these windows desperately asking for help.

Baldoz also on Saturday ordered a nationwide special assessment and surprise visits of all manufacturing establishments.

Urging a "full stop" of "sweatshop" practices, Baldoz invoked her visitorial powers as labor chief outlined in Article 128 of the Labor Code.

President Benigno Aquino III is set to address the nation on Monday, June 1, regarding his orders in relation to the deadly blaze.

While Aquino provided a budget for additional manpower in the early days of the now-embattled LLCS, the current compliance-officer-to-establishment ratio in Metro Manila still falls below the ideal.

Metro Manila is disadvantaged in LLCO distribution given the relatively vast number of establishments needed to be monitored in the region, DOLE officials lamented.

Pressure on Aquino

The Kentex fire is viewed as a setback for the Philippine manufacturing industry and sheds light on the need to strictly enforce compliance with OSH.

An initial probe by the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development found that Kentex mishandled and improperly labelled an inflammable chemical, did not provide its workers with fire safety training, and had an inadequate fire alarm system.

Kentex was able to secure a provisional business permit from the Valenzuela local government despite the lack of a fire safety certificate, with the mayor justifying the issuance of such a permit as customary practice under a joint order by the interior and the trade and industry departments.

Baldoz and labor groups had reiterated their call to criminalize grave violations of occupational safety and health standards by employers, as the 4-decade-old Labor Code merely imposes a fine for OSH offenses regardless of lives lost.

Baldoz had urged Congress to pass a law that will spell out the criminal penalty for grave OSH offenses, and labor groups have asked Aquino to certify such a bill urgent.

A proposal for trade unionists to be deployed as labor inspectors resurfaced in the aftermath of the fire.

With the unfortunate incident happening under a system already lauded for being a game-changer in workplace assessment, Aquino is under pressure to institute long-lasting pro-worker reforms. This includes addressing the ills of contractual labor, found to be rampant in Kentex.

The DOLE admits the LLCS is work in progress but insists it is much better than the old system.

Compounding the pressure on Aquino is a $1-million grant announced late in 2014 by the United States through the ILO for DOLE's LLCS.

Groups from the far left have called for Baldoz' resignation over the May 13 fire. – Rappler.com