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IOHSAD Statement on HTI Fire

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The Philippine government’s continuing “hands off” policy on workplace safety and other labor standards has made workplaces more dangerous and deadly for workers. Its continuous adherence with voluntary compliance, instead of mandatory labor inspection, as a framework on Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) is one of the immediate reasons for the mounting deaths and injuries in workplaces across the country.

Less than two years after the Kentex fire tragedy, which claimed the lives of more than 72 workers, a bigger workplace fire occurred in a Special Economic Zone which affected thousands of workers. The House Technology Industries (HTI) fire in Cavite Economic Zone last February 1 left more than a hundred workers injured and one worker dead as of this writing. There were accounts gathered from HTI workers that state that there are many workers who are still unaccounted for and were possibly trapped inside the burnt building.

Government policies supposedly mandating voluntary compliance with OSH and other labor standards as well as the jurisdiction of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) over ecozones including occupational safety are key policies that cause workplace tragedies such as the fire in HTI in CEPZ.

The DOLE brags about supposedly “tripartite” means in upholding voluntary compliance, where the government through the DOLE, the workers and the employers are involved. Such a policy will amount to nothing, especially in the country’s ecozones where the right to unionize and collectively bargain are being violated with impunity. In the first place, the majority of workers there are contractuals, whose right to regular employment is being violated. What ever “joint assessment” is conducted is surely between the PEZA-DOLE and the employer.

A deadly fire inside a special economic zone where tens of thousands of workers are employed force us not only to question these policies but to point to them as crucial in putting the workers’ lives in constant danger.

Voluntary compliance as a framework for adherence to OSH and other labor standards and PEZA’s autonomous zone violate the workers’ right to health and safety in the workplace. These two policies only serve the interests of employers in the ecozones, allowing them to freely disregard and therefore violate OSH standards.

The HTI fire and the slow, incomplete and confusing reports on this workplace tragedy put these government policies in question:

(1) Special Economic Zone Act of 1995: “PEZA, in coordination with the Department of Labor and Employment, shall conduct periodic inspection of plants within the ECOZONE to check on the compliance with health, medical, occupational and safety standards of the buildings, structures and electro-mechanical equipment and machineries, as well as on the general condition and maintenance of the plant.”

 Why is the PEZA tasked to uphold OSH and other labor standards, when it is under the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and is primarily tasked to attract foreign investors to its sites?

 It is highly questionable that PEZA has the responsibility to ensure the inspection of plants within the ecozones when factories here employ large number of workers and usually engage in hazardous work.

 What are PEZA’s guidelines in conducting OSH inspection? How regular does it conduct OSH inspection in factories?

(2) DOLE 131-B Series of 2016: Revised Labor Laws Compliance System
Ecozone-wide assessment of Voluntary Compliance states : “The Regional Director shall coordinate with the Philippine Economic Zone Authority Director General and Zone Manager or Zone Administrator, as the case may be, the conduct of an Ecozone-wide Assessment of locators’ voluntary compliance with labor standards and occupational safety and heatlth standards.”

 This provision in the said Department Order clearly shows how powerless DOLE is in relation to PEZA as it needs to coordinate with the latter to be able to conduct an Ecozone-wide assessment. Voluntary compliance promoted by the government gives workplaces in ecozones license to freely violate labor and safety standards and place the workers' lives in constant danger.

Almost a week after the deadly fire, we pose these challenges to the officials of PEZA, DOLE and the HTI Management. We also demand urgent responses and concrete actions from these agencies.

• We challenge PEZA Director General Charito Plaza to fully and truthfully disclose the details and results of the labor inspection she claimed that PEZA conducted in HTI. When exactly did the inspection happen? Who conducted the inspection? What were the results and basis for declaring HTI as compliant with general labor and occupational health and safety standards?

• We challenge Department of Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello to include labor centers and other cause-oriented groups who have initiated fact-finding missions in conducting a thorough investigation of the HTI fire. Meetings among all the agencies involved should be made public and participation of workers and labor groups should be ensured.

• We challenge the HTI management to open its records and factory gates to the media and public. Allow workers to be interviewed and give their testimonials and full account of the fire. Stop threatening workers who are willing to give details and information about the fire.

Lastly, we call on the Senate to immediately act on House Bill 64 (An act strengthening compliance with occupational safety and health standards and providing penalties for violations thereof), which was approved by the House of Representatives last December 2016. The tragic HTI fire makes it urgent for the senators to pass a counterpart measure that will legislate the following demands : (1) Department of Labor’s mandatory inspection of all establishments, including workplaces in ecozones, and disallow any form of employer-discretion based compliance with OSH laws; 2) the imposition of stiffer penalties and imprisonment to companies who violate OSH standards.

Justice for HTI Workers!
Investigate and prosecute the owners of House Technology Industries!
Junk Department Order 131-B! Voluntary compliance puts workers’ lives in danger!
Junk Special Economic Zone Act of 1995!
Workers’ health and safety is government responsibility!
Criminalize OSH standards violations!
Safe working conditions for Filipino workers!

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