The deaths of 72 workers at a sandals factory in the Philippines earlier this month is sadly not shocking news; risk of mass death is practically considered a regular cost of doing business in the regional factories. But the blaze coincides with two grim anniversaries for Global South labor: the death of more than 1,100 workers in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, and the subsequent launch of a landmark safety program for Bangladesh factories. Today, it all adds up to a tragically uneven record of reform in Asia’s low-wage, high fashion manufacturing system.
Conditions at the Kentex Manufacturing facility in Valenzuela, which produced shoes for the domestic market, were painfully familiar, according to auditors and news reports: workers were reportedly paid well below minimum wage, worked half-day shifts, and braved toxic fumes without proper protective gear inside poorly ventilated, often sweltering factories.
Research on the disaster by a coalition of NGOs, including the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development and the trade union Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) found that the factory compound was effectively a death trap, lacking basic fire alarms and fire exits, with “only two gates, one… for people and the other… for delivery trucks. The factory windows are covered with steel grills and chicken wire which could not easily be destroyed even during emergencies.” Many struggled to escape by breaking the windows (sealed, the company’s lawyer later explained, to prevent “stealing”), a few jumped from the second floor and some had to scale the walls since the trucks were blocking their path.
Yet the trap was well-laid before the first spark. Authorities claimed Kentex was complying with safety regulations, but used illegal subcontractors (officials have since taken enforcement actions). Though workers had what they called a “company union,” even the most senior workers only earned about minimum wage. Many others were hired as agency contractors, who reported more precarious conditions, like having social and health benefit payments withheld. The lowest tier were pieceworkers, with no steady wage, no contract, and 12-hour days.