Officials in the Philippines are pledging to file charges against the owners of a suburban Manila factory where at least 72 workers died in a Wednesday fire. The metal barriers that prevented them from escaping out second-story windows are only the most immediate example of the unsafe and exploitative working conditions that workers and officials say Kentex Manufacturing Corp. imposed at the plant.
Workers told Agence France-Presse that the factory owners never ran fire drills to practice for an emergency, withheld legally required insurance payments, paid below the country’s minimum wage, and required everyone on hand to work 12 hour shifts every day without weekends. A union leader and government labor official both asserted that such abuses and the lax overall attitude toward safety at the Kentex plant is typical of the country’s manufacturing sector.
The fire was apparently caused by sparks from a welding crew working on the main gate. The rubber and chemicals stored at the plant provided fast-burning and toxic fuel for the blaze. Many workers were able to evacuate, but those who couldn’t reach the main exit stairwell due to smoke retreated upstairs to try to jump from the windows. They could not, because the windows were secured with grates to prevent animals from getting in and workers from sneaking stolen products out.
Factory owners have pledged financial assistance to the families of the dead and assert that they were in compliance with safety laws at the time of the fire. The factory passed its most recent safety inspection, in the fall of 2014, according to the New York Times. But two workers who survived told reporters that they had never been drilled on fire evacuation procedures. Investigators are still working to discover the precise cause of the fire, but the current theory involving welding sparks and poorly stored chemicals is indicative of lax attention to safety.
Filipino workplace safety and labor laws are poorly enforced, according to the leader of the country’s Labor Party, who pointed to the country’s reliance on business owners to police their own compliance with the law as the key problem. “Voluntary compliance and self-assessment means that the government is asking the wolf to guard the sheep. No wonder the sheep get slaughtered,” party chairman Renato Magtubo told AFP. Government officials believe that illegal temp agencies that are commonly used to skirt wage laws in the Philippines were responsible for hiring many of the Kentex workers.
The building that burned Wednesday housed a plant for making rubber flip-flops that are common footwear in the Phillipines. Kentex apparently did not sell their sandals, described as a knock-off version of expensive Brazilian slippers called Havaianas, outside of the pacific archipelago.
The calamity calls to mind other developing-world worker tragedies in recent years. But where a clear tie to multinational brands that sell their products in wealthy countries helped ensure international attention and corporate investments in reform after a 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh, this week’s fatalities in the Philippines seem less likely to drive major change.
The Bangladesh tragedy killed more than 1,100 workers and exposed the commonplace nature of dangerous construction practices and exploitative workplace policies in the commercial pipeline that feeds clothing and other products to shopping malls throughout the developed world. Companies like H&M; and the GAP felt compelled to take up various public efforts to enhance safety and compliance with worker laws throughout their supply chain after the Rana Plaza collapse. The Kentex fire won’t drag American and European retailers into the court of public opinion in the same way.