The fire at a slipper factory in Valenzuela City that left 72 people dead and scores missing shows, again, the sad state of many workplaces and other structures in the country.
Again, it had to take a high body count to focus attention on unsafe working conditions, such as at the factory of Kentex Manufacturing Inc., which churns out flip-flops and sandals for the local market.
That these conditions escaped the required fire safety inspections has resulted in the administrative relief of Valenzuela’s city fire marshal and the chief of its fire safety enforcement section. But surely the culpability goes beyond just two people?
Family members of those killed or missing in the fire that raged for seven hours reported seeing the workers clustered by the windows on the second floor, desperately waving their hands and “struggling for hours.” As many as 69 bodies were reportedly found on that second floor. The windows had iron bars as well as wire netting—installed perhaps to prevent robbery within and without, as well as illegal entrances and exits, but which ultimately made it impossible for anyone to escape in case of an emergency such as a fire.
There were apparently no sprinklers in a structure where welding was a regular activity. There were no fire exits. As many as 200 to 300 people were said to work in the factory at any given time, but the workers claim they had never participated in a single fire drill. The management is now being accused of paying their workers below the minimum wage rate. Some workers have complained of foul-smelling chemicals.
It’s a regular sweatshop, by the look of things. It thus comes as no surprise that local authorities would identify the cause of the fire as welding activity conducted close to flammable chemicals. Imagine. Even more infuriating, police were quoted as saying that the factory did not even have proper permits for the welders.
As commonly happens, the danger signs were evident long before the tragedy. Absence of fire exits and the main door swinging the wrong way were among the conditions that led to the horrific death toll in the Ozone Disco fire in Quezon City back in 1996. The fire, considered the sixth worst disco fire in world history, started in the disc jockey’s booth and quickly raged through the club, lasting for four hours and killing 162 people and injuring 90 others. Many of those killed could not get out because the door through which they could have exited swung inward instead of outward. (In building the club, the owners reportedly thought it was good feng shui.)
Nine people were eventually found culpable for the tragedy. “The engineers gave unwarranted and preferential treatment to the Ozone disco owners,” the court said. “They failed to detect structural and fire safety deficiencies.”
Surely structural and fire safety deficiencies were also the factors that led to the fire that gutted the Kentex factory and snuffed out the lives of many of its workers. The bereaved families are not only lamenting the loss of their loved ones but also grappling with the bitter reality that it will be a long wait for the recovered remains to be properly identified. In a report, Dionesio Candido, who has four relatives still missing, said he was able to enter the gutted structure and saw charred bodies “piled on top of each other.” But the logbook that listed exactly how many people were working the shift is missing, and the foreman is dead.
Valenzuela Rep. Magtanggol Gunigundo has been quoted as saying that City Hall failed to properly inspect the factory for fire hazards. He has called for a formal investigation. The acting chief of the Philippine National Police, Leonardo Espina, said proper charges would be brought “against all those accountable.”
It’s yet another wake-up call for both the authorities and owners of business enterprises such as factories that are nothing more than sweatshops. There is no lack in laws and regulations; it’s in the enforcement, or lack of it, that disaster lurks. As in many other tragedies, the Kentex factory fire could easily have been prevented if everyone simply did what they were required by law to do. Yet again, bereaved families are left to look for bodies in the ash.
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