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Women on fire

SISTERS FROM the women’s movement lost no time seeing parallels between the 72 deaths of the workers at the Kentex slipper factory fire, most of them women hired as part of the “pakyaw” or per piece system, and the deaths of other women workers in deadly factory blazes around the world, beginning with the 145 deaths of young migrant women in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory fire in 1911.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is, says the History Channel website, “remembered as one of the most infamous incidents in American industrial history.” Most of the deaths, it is said, were largely preventable, since most of the victims died as a result of “neglected safety features and locked doors within the factory building.” A protest march held after the fire is commonly thought to have been the origin of the international women’s movement, as well as the modern workers’ movement.

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Sound familiar? Survivors and firefighters say the fatalities, most of them found on the second floor, died after inhaling toxic fumes, most probably from the rubber used to fashion the slippers under the brand name “Havanas”—supposedly changed from “Havaianas” to avoid trademark suits.

Well, if only the owners of Kentex were as diligent in ensuring the safety of their workers, who had no way of escaping the fire and the fumes since there wasn’t a fire escape and the windows were barred and locked. Radio reporters quoted firefighters who said the smoke was nasty and caused them to choke, most probably from the noxious chemicals. The fire reportedly began after sparks from welding torches being used at the entrance on the first floor set flammable material nearby ablaze.

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NOW there are reports that the owners are offering a paltry P13,000 to the families of those who died from the fire.

There were no reports of what was being asked of the families in return. But an official of another fire survivors’ group—families of the victims of the Ozone Disco fire of 1996, the most deadly in the country yet, killing 162, many of them young people celebrating the close of the school year—counsels the families of the Kentex victims to organize themselves and “persevere.”

This is because, said Joseph Stephen Santos, president of the Justice for Ozone Victims Foundation Inc., the search for justice—and not just for compensation—can take years and years and force them to endure setback after setback.

The Kentex fire, one of many in recent years, most of which have taken place in the developing world, is also a painful reminder of the status of women in the workplace.

Even with all the gains made by the feminist movement, women workers remain the least paid, the most discriminated against, and the most at risk in the workplace. They risk not just lower wages and unjust and inhuman conditions, but even sexual harassment at the hands of those who have the “hiring and firing” power over them.

And because women workers are still the least organized—discriminated against even within the labor movement—they remain the most prone to workplace discrimination and the least able to assert their rights or seek protection.

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So is it any wonder that most of the fatalities at Kentex were women?

After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, so much pressure was exerted on governments around the world that they had no choice but to enforce safety and welfare laws to protect the women employed in sweat shops and factories.

Still, women continue to die due to negligence and heedless management, especially in settings of poverty. Let the Kentex victims be the last in our lengthening list of workplace disasters.

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THANKS to Laurence Ligier, founder of the Cameleon Association, for the tickets to “Lukso! Cirque de la Vie.” The “circus of life” had a single show last Thursday at the Newport Performing Arts Center at Resorts World Manila.

The show featured teachers and volunteers from the French circus school (alumni of which have moved on to star in international circus companies like Cirque du Soleil), including two girls from Cameleon, an NGO that provides shelter, counseling and education for abused girls in Iloilo. Before the performance, Ligier and Cameleon president lawyer Jose Cochingyan III, introduced a video presentation on the work done by the association for the girls and their families in the city of Passi.

Touching indeed were scenes showing Cameleon’s school bus filled with girls going to school, visiting with their families, and helping maintain their quarters. In one part of the video, Ligier visits the home of two sisters who’ve returned home after spending some time in the Cameleon center. One of the girls tells her that she insisted on putting a lock on the door of their home after their father returned home, explaining that “this is the only way I can feel safe.”

A highlight of the two-hour show was the portion featuring the two Cameleon trainees performing dangerous and risky stunts on boards mounted on rolling tubes and dangling from the ceiling with a length of cloth dubbed the “aerial silk.”

The audience audibly gasped as the two female performers (one was apparently an experienced acrobat) twirled and posed from their flimsy supports, especially as the girl from Cameleon rolled down after wrapping her body in swirls of silk. She made a successful landing, thankfully, but I thought perhaps the risks she has taken while training for the circus are but nothing compared to the risks she has had to take by simply being a girl, being poor, and subject to abuse. Those interested in supporting the work being done by Cameleon Association can get in touch with them by email: cameleon.ph@gmail.com

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