Seventy-two people died and many more are missing in a fire Wednesday in Barangay Ugong, Valenzuela City. From what remains of the place, and from the narrations of its workers who survived and the loved ones of those who did not, working conditions in the factory producing slippers were far from ideal.
The windows were draped with chicken wire, which prevented the people from climbing out as the fire broke out. There was also talk that the doors were locked on purpose so the workers could stay inside the compound during the time they are supposed to work.
There are many factories in Valenzuela City, which forms the periphery of the entire Metro Manila area. Businessmen prefer it because while it is still, technically, located in the National Capital Region, it straddles the border with the province of Bulacan, already in Region 3. Naturally, the price of real estate is not as high as it is, say, in Quezon City or Makati. The question in, how many of these factories employ the basic minimum in prescribed safe and humane working conditions?
The Department of Labor and Employment found that indeed, Kentex Manufacturing violated the Labor Code by engaging with a manpower provider without a proper registration. This is not unique. Factories apply the “endo” scheme in hiring their workers. The people apply to an employment agency which has an existing agreement with the factory to supply its employees.
Some factories prefer male workers, and logically for the nature of the job. For “lighter” work, females are ideal. But not just any female. Some factories do not like married women, especially those with small children, because they tend to be absent when the children get sick or have an event in school. They also do not like lesbians, because they say they will only spend their time courting the girls.
The contracts are good for less than six months, for obvious reasons. No benefits, no coverage. The wages are below minimum and often, the people have to work long hours to take home an adequate amount.
It’s difficult to complain, too. These workers must be thankful they have jobs in the first place. And since the workers know they are not going to be on the job for long, they must be on their “best behavior” lest they lose what little opportunity they have to earn money.
It’s tragic that dozens of workers burned to death in that factory. What is doubly tragic is how politicians seem to ride on the issue just because they know it’s a gut issue for workers, who by the way comprise bulk of the voters here. The Valenzuela factory incident has all the ingredients of a perfect tug-at-your-heartstrings narrative: oppressive working conditions, rich versus poor, failure of relevant agencies to monitor compliance with certain standards.
It is jarring nonetheless to see personalities descending on Valenzuela—which by the way nobody paid attention to before—commenting on the incident, calling for an investigation, slamming the owner and feigning oneness with the victims’ families. Of course, this is the hot issue of the day. They were the same after disasters. The same after Mamasapano. How can we tell who is genuine or not?
The test of whether they are sincere in their condolences is the attention they give the issue long after it ceases being hot copy. Until then, we can just wait and see who is really going to do something about the issue.
Sadly, to these posers, what happened in the factory is just a peg on which to base their next statements. For the families, who don’t care much for politics as much as putting food on the table, that’s really something to get angry about.