WHAT A HORRIFIC waste of life. On May 13, 72 individuals, possibly more, perished in the inferno that was the Kentex slipper factory in Valenzuela. Sixty-nine of them were employees, all trapped by girded windows and doors on the second floor of the structure. It’s no consolation that the 24-year old son of the owner, himself a partner in the business, was one of the casualties. There is no mitigating circumstance to this tragedy.
But there is more to bemoan than the wretched death of these people. There is the wretched way they were forced to eke out a living under the pakyawan system immorally, and I posit, illegally used by Kentex.
To meet a daily production quota, most of them worked long hours for less than the minimum wage in a cramped, unsafe environment which two days ago proved fatal.
Survivors said they had never participated in fire drills or been trained in safety procedures throughout their employment in Kentex. Families of the victims told of how their relatives complained of the foul smell they endured as they worked. For their trouble, the most they could take home daily was reportedly only about P300, nearly 40% less than the minimum wage. One of the survivors said that he mixed chemicals 12 hours a day, seven days a week for P3,500 monthly. One of the dead workers who once toiled under these conditions was pregnant.
One former worker said she never noticed if her environs, in which highly flammable substances were used and stored, had fire exits.
“Di ko na iniisip ‘yun, basta iniisip ko mahirap ang buhay kailangan kumita ng pera,” she told GMA news.
No matter how unreasonable this sounds, it makes perfect sense to those in similar straits. Kailangan kumita ng pera. This is the principle that inures them to exploitation, numbing the demands of their human worth and dignity. The disgusting reality is that many establishments are familiar with this self-deprecation and are all too ready to profit from it. Some even count on it.
These businesses will satisfy the letter of our labor laws but by no means fulfill their spirit. They will keep themselves safe but expose their workers to all kinds of economic peril. Occasionally, the threat is calamitous, as it was in Valenzuela. And that is why there are now families in Barangay Ugong who, in the grim irony of circumstance, suddenly have less mouths to feed – all of them immolated on the altar of industrial cupidity.
One man instantly lost his daughter, granddaughter, and sister-in-law, just as one woman lost seven relatives in the blaze. They were neighbors, probably friends, having all belonged to that small community; they were all merely hoping to get by. The pittance they took home was better than nothing, they reasoned. It was certainly worth the risk that they disregarded (denied? ignored? or was it even known to them?). But surely the bosses of Kentex knew better than they did.
This subtle devaluation of life is a piteous commentary on the persistence of poverty in this country and the raging impetus for survival – a stubborn, gnawing prevalence that controls the masses despite PNoy’s insistence that the times are a’changin’. Oh yes, perhaps, but changing for whom?
Malacañang, citing the Department of Labor, said Kentex had passed the inspections and complied with safety standards. It even had a safety committee, said Press Secretary Herminio Coloma, as if that fact by itself should mean something. Why then is the flag flying at half-mast in Valenzuela?
It is some comfort that the owners have assured Valenzuela Mayor Rexlon Gatchalian that they would fully assist and compensate the victims’ families as well as submit themselves to legal processes afterwards. I would like to believe this is a genuinely compassionate effort on their part, especially because they too are lamenting the loss of a beloved. I sincerely hope this is not an attempt to reduce to pecuniary terms the exorbitant toll of grief.
The bereaved families deserve more than that. They may have materially less than the mainstream, nonetheless they deserve the utmost respect and consideration accorded by our laws to full-fledged citizens of our country. In its last days, the Aquino government would do better to exert its energy in defense of these underprivileged countrymen of ours rather than of shady manufacturers who cut corners.
I hope the deaths of the Valenzuela 72 have inflamed in us a vociferous outrage against the privation that persists in our society. More than their economic poverty, it is the resulting mendicancy of spirit and self-devaluation that raise my ire.
I imagine a day when our people will no longer have to sell themselves for a mess of pottage. When will it come and who will bring it? Or will this dream of mine merely go up in smoke?