Who Started the Manila Fires? Black Out on Labor Rights (Part Two)

Who Started the Manila Fires? Black Out on Labor Rights (Part Two)
Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像

What you need to know

At the moment there have been no more statements. No sound from the employees or survivors. Not a peep on the workers unaccounted for. The latest from HTI is that the company is looking to hire more workers.

In the near future, the public may find it difficult to hashtag “NeverForget” to the fire at the House Technology Industries (HTI) since there is hardly anything to remember it by. But the HTI fire, which started on the afternoon of Feb. 1, is one of the worst in recent memory in Manila.

Read more:
Who Started the Manila Fires? (Part One)

HTI is a Singapore-owned manufacturer of construction materials and prefabricated houses, based in Cavite, a province near Metro Manila and inside an Economic Processing Zone (EPZ). These zones were established with the interest of letting foreign corporations set up shop in a more business-friendly environment.

But companies in EPZs are notorious for violating labor rights; avoiding taxes and/or being given tax incentives in their operations, and circumventing many labor laws or accountability mechanisms since they have their own special government — the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA).

There seem to be conflicting reports on how the fire started, how many people were inside and who survived. Both the media and many key authorities have been inconsistent on the questions raised.

According to official statements by Cavite Governor Boying Remulla on the day of the fire, there were around 300 workers inside at the time of the fire. Less than a week later, PEZA Chief Clarito Plaza said that 746 workers were on duty during the fire. This was a noticeable change from Clarito’s earlier Feb. 2 statement that said those trapped inside numbered from 6,000 to 7,000.

This is just one example.

Almost a month after the two-day fire, there has yet to be a definitive report or investigation by the authorities. Most have poured cold water on the incident since the number of deaths at the time of writing is reported to be just five, and the medical bills of the 126 reported injured would be fully covered by HTI.

Case closed.

Except that HTI employs 13,000 workers and is one of the bigger manufacturing units in the Cavite EPZ. If 7,000 workers were trapped inside a burning building for nearly 48 hours, it seems miraculous that the death toll only reached five.

Fires like this don’t just happen. They are produced by an accumulation of precarious conditions that inevitably leave the marginalized to be the most vulnerable. The curious case of HTI mirrors another factory fire in 2015 which claimed the lives of 74 employees. There is much to uncover as similar fires are happening more often.

What they aren’t telling us

A fact-finding investigation into the HTI fire was headed by the Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement) and conducted by labor groups, independent political parties and NGOs. According to their findings, a day after the fire ended, there were 1,328 workers unaccounted for and over 582 feared dead or missing. This runs contrary to Governor Remulla’s claims that all workers have been accounted for.

A look into their report reveals scenes from the tragedy at HTI. Sparks from a machine on the second floor caught sawdust and other flammable material in the production area. In less than two minutes the area was engulfed in flames. Some fire exits were said to have been blocked by the blaze while others were locked. Survivors escaped through the main staircase which led to the employee entrance area.

They noted that the staircase was not more than two meters wide — not nearly spacious enough for the throngs of panicking workers trying to escape. Some survivors say they had to crawl over piles of their co-workers’ scorched corpses to get free. Others were prompted to break the windows and jump from the building (including a pregnant woman), as seen by many witnesses outside the factory.

Less than 24 hours after the fire ended, workers were called in by management for headcount and “orientation.” Upon timing-in, they were told to be silent on the incident and to withhold any information about the fire. One worker interviewed by the independent investigation claimed to have photos of the fire and bodies being taken out of the building but was instructed to delete the content. Other workers corroborated this but requested complete anonymity in fear of losing their job or any form of reprisal. This purging of evidence would go on for the next few days.

Speaking up is not as easy as it sounds when your job is on the line and the notoriously violent and mafia-like political dynasty of the Remullas is clearly in cahoots with the PEZA and HTI top brass. These three have used their power to bar media or outsiders from communicating with anyone on the site.

Governor Remulla also announced that clearing operations and mapping out the building complex would take up to two weeks, and heavy equipment would also be required to enter the most affected areas. During this time, the forensic unit of the Philippine National Police would not be allowed to enter the facility despite having announced their readiness.

This comes from the same man who has changed his story twice in less than a week. From 300 workers inside the building to 3,000 a few days later, presumably since it seemed impossible to be 300. From all accounted for to admitting that some dead bodies could still be found inside the premises.

It is also important to note that contrary to Remulla’s proclamation, the fire broke out at 6 p.m. between shifts; witnesses and the Bureau of Fire Protection say it started at 5 p.m. This means that those who came to work that day were well into their production activities at the time and not yet outside the building.

Killer contracts

At the moment there have been no more statements. No sound from the employees or survivors. Not a peep on the workers unaccounted for. The latest from HTI is that the company is looking to hire more workers.

Nobody wants to work in EPZs. The work can be perilous and wages insufficient. Around 5,000 HTI workers are contracted and this will be the case for a long time since it is the dominant practice in the country. Factory enclaves like EPZs regularly fill in their workforce with agencies that supply cheap labor for the process of contractualization.

Contractualization dictates that a worker is given a contract at the start of his/her tenure for six months. The contract then ends and the worker is immediately re-hired in a matter of days, and the process starts again. This goes on repeatedly for years, or decades, in some cases.

By doing so, workers have no benefits (unlike a regular employee), virtually zero job security, are barred from any union activity and receive a wage that is usually less than the minimum required by law — which is illegal, yet being contractual does not allow one to complain in fear of being out of work.

HTI contractual workers are reported to receive 200 pesos a day (US$4) — less than half the minimum wage in Manila (481 pesos a day) and only 58 percent of Cavite’s mandated wage of 340 pesos per day.

There are no clear figures on the number of contractual workers in the country, but many experts say they are in the majority. The worst kind of slave-like places for work are filled with them. In the case of HTI, for 200 pesos a day, nobody complained about the dangers that their work presented. You had to grin and bear it.

This is the kind of desperation the employment crisis has reached in the country.

“Endo,” meaning “end of contract,” has become a popular term that was coined by young workers who are frequently at the losing end of this scenario. It has penetrated jokes, television, social media, and is now part of the modern-day vernacular.

Even President Duterte garnered much support for his platform when he strongly opposed "endo" and vowed to end it in the first few months of his administration. This promise would later go the other way by cementing a labor order that increases the role of agencies that supply contractual workers, much to the chagrin of the public.

Contractualization forces poor Filipinos into the worst working conditions available in the country without any muscle to say otherwise. In the Kentex Factory fire two years ago, the factory was revealed to have prison bars on its windows, padlocked fire exits and a very narrow entrance. Workers were imprisoned and helpless as people surrounding the area and firefighters saw their burning silhouettes through the glass and steel frames.

The HTI fire is distinctly worse, not because of a possibly higher death toll, but since the corporations in power learned a new trick in their cover-up. The Kentex tragedy will go down in history as a cruel reminder of the hazardous circumstances Filipino workers should never endure. The HTI tragedy, on the other hand, has yet to be acknowledged. Those in power don’t want people to be reminded.

Editor: Olivia Yang