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Blaze leaves 72 dead, raises concern over workplace safety in Philippines

Survivors say factory never held fire drills, barred windows responsible for high number of fatalities.

 
Firefighters attempt to put out a fire that engulfed a factory in Valenzuela City and killed 72 people on Wednesday
Manila: 

A fire that killed at least 72 people in a rubber slipper factory in Manila on Wednesday has raised concerns that a number of establishments and workplaces around the country may not be compliant with occupational health and safety standards.

"The high death toll from this inferno strongly indicates a complete breach of safety protocols required for industries," Renato Magtubo, of Partido Manggagawa, or Workers' Party, said in an interview.

"Something must be wrong in the design of the workplace if dozens of people could not escape in an emergency,” he said. "What is anomalous is how these kinds of establishments pass government safety standards.”

Survivors spoke out Thursday, blaming barred windows for the high number of deaths.

Nearly all of those killed in Wednesday's five-hour blaze were trapped on the second floor of the two-storey building, unable to break steel bars over the windows, according to survivors and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas.

"They were screaming for help, holding on to the bars," factory worker Randy Paghubosan, one of the few on the ground floor who escaped, said as faint smoke still billowed from the ruins on Thursday.

"When we could no longer see their hands, we knew they had died ... they died because they were trapped on the second floor."

Roxas promised justice for the victims as he expressed anger at the lack of fire exits and the cause of the blaze — welding that was being carried out near flammable chemicals.

"Why was welding work allowed near all those chemicals? Why were the second floor windows enclosed in steel bars? Why were 69 of the 72 on the second floor," Roxas told reporters after meeting with victims' relatives.

Authorities on Thursday confirmed that 72 people died as a result of the fire that engulfed Kentex Manufacturing Inc in the city of Valenzuela.

At least 30 survivors were accounted for by the city government, according to Mayor Rex Gatchalian, who said "several others might still be missing".

"The bodies have been burnt beyond recognition," the mayor said, adding that identifying the victims was "impossible".

Veato Ang, one of the factory owners, told media on Wednesday that up to 300 people were employed at the building.

Bureau of Fire Protection officials said the fire, which began at about 11:45am on Wednesday, started on the first floor of the building where a stock of chemicals was stored.

Fire official Ariel Barayuga said investigators were still looking into what specifically caused the fire, but added that sparks from welding work on the factory's gate had started the conflagration.

"Extreme heat and thick smoke prevented people from escaping," he said.

Leonardo Espina, the national police chief, said the investigation is still ongoing, but charges would almost certainly be laid.

"Someone will definitely be charged because of the deaths. It doesn't matter if it's an accident, people died," he told reporters.

Only two weeks ago, the government signed an agreement with Philippine exporters to strictly implement compliance with the country’s labor laws, including minimum wages and occupational health and safety requirements.

Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz followed that up on Tuesday by declaring that "occupational safety and health is essential" for workers, adding that partnerships with the private sector had been launched to ensure their protection.

In a statement sent to ucanews.com on Thursday, the Department of Labor and Employment said the factory where Wednesday’s deadly blaze occurred had been found to be compliant with existing labor laws.

"Kentex Manufacturing Corporation has been found to be compliant with general labor standards and occupational safety and health standards after a joint assessment by our Labor Laws Compliance Officers under the new Labor Laws

Even so, questions persist about the factory’s safety standards.

Bishop Jose Oliveros of Malolos wondered if worker safety had truly been a priority.

"It was a tragedy that could had been prevented if proper measures were done for the safety of the workers," he said. "Were the fire escapes ever inspected?" asked Oliveros, whose jurisdiction covers the city of Valenzuela.

The factory workers toiled for below minimum wage while surrounded by foul-smelling chemicals and were not aware of fire safety standards, survivors and relatives said.

"The families can't help but be angry about what happened. We will never forget this," said Rodrigo Nabor, whose two sisters were inside the factory and remain unaccounted for.

Nabor was among relatives of factory workers waiting for body bags at a village hall that has been converted into a makeshift morgue.

"I've lost hope that they survived," said Nabor, 31, who works at a nearby plywood factory.

"I can't explain how I'm feeling. I didn't sleep at all last night. I just kept walking around the factory hoping for news."

Nabor said his sisters, Bernardita Logronio, 32, and Jennylyn Nabor, 26, often complained of foul-smelling chemicals in their workplace.

"They said they keep an electric fan on to drive some of the smell away," he said.

Nabor said their pay depended on how many sandals they finished, which could be as little as 300 pesos (US$6.70) a day. Nabor's sisters each had a young child.

One survivor, 23-year-old Lisandro Mendoza, said he escaped by running out the factory’s back door. He said the company had not conducted any fire safety education or drills during his five months working there.

"We were running not knowing exactly where to go," said Mendoza.

Another survivor, Janet Victoriano, also described lax fire safety standards.

"I've never been involved in a fire drill ever," Victoriano, who had worked at the factory for five years, told DZMM radio.

Victoriano said she was able to escape because she was near the front door when the blaze started.

Deadly fires regularly rip through poor areas of the Philippine capital, but mostly in shanty towns where there are virtually no fire safety standards.

In the deadliest fire in Manila in recent times, 162 people were killed in a huge blaze that gutted a Manila disco in 1996.

Source: UCAN

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