Sentro chides gov’t for flip-flopping on helping ‘boat people’

Rohingya migrants in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015.     AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT

Rohingya migrants in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT

IN A MATTER of days if not hours, the Aquino government keeps on changing its stand or remains unsure on whether to give refuge to the “boat people” – from Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh who are both escaping from religious persecution and victims of human trafficking – if their “floating coffin” boats reach the Philippine shores.

Echoing the frantic appeals of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the national labor center Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa urged Aquino to categorically declare that the country would not turn away the “boat people” or push their boats back to sea just like what Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia mercilessly did.

Last Sunday, May 17, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. was quoted as saying that the country, like the three other Asean countries, would “deny admission” to the “boat people” if they are “undocumented” or “don’t have travel documents.”

“Coloma’s statement, which reflects Malacañang’s view, is totally absurd and heartless and devoid of logic,” Josua Mata, Sentro secretary general, said, adding that “persons fleeing from grave and immediate danger and suffering will think first of their safety rather than bringing travel documents. They are escaping, not going to a vacation.”

However, on Monday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima assured that the country will extend shelter to the “boat people” as the Philippines is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as well as the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.

In an apparent correction to Coloma’s bungling, De Lima emphatically clarified that “it’s not accurate that we will not help them just because they are undocumented. Their situation is different and they should be treated differently.”

De Lima also recalled the country’s opening its doors to asylum seekers or refugees or externally displaced persons (EDPs) like the Jewish people from Europe during World War II and the famous “boat people” from Vietnam in the 1970s.

But after only one day, Coloma was again double talking when asked once more if the country would take in the fleeing refugees and migrants: “It is inappropriate to engage in speculation … We will do what is needed and deal with concrete situations as these actually materialize.”

The ambiguity and tentativeness of Coloma – one of President Aquino’s spokespersons – is shared by the Department of Foreign Affairs, when it stated that while it believes in De Lima’s position, the country will have to “balance (its) commitments” to the international conventions “with our interests, economy and security.”

“It’s actually a ‘diplomatese’ or a diplomat’s mumbo jumbo of ‘I don’t know what to do’ or ‘come what may,’” Mata retorted.

Meanwhile, the IOM and the UN agencies warned that the plight of the “boat people” is an actual and worsening humanitarian crisis, and reiterated their appeals to Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, to organize sea search and rescues and stop preventing the thousands of refugees and migrants from landing on their shores.

“People (are) stuck in the high seas, some of them are already lost, some about to be lost. This is a very serious matter, (a) regional crisis,” Bernard Kerblat, UNHCR representative to the Philippines, was reported saying.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims, who are ethnic and religious minority in Burma, have fled violence, discrimination and abject poverty from their “adopted” homeland and from squalid and pathetic refugee camps on both sides of the Burmese-Bangladeshi border. They soon fell prey to human traffickers in nearby Thailand, where because of the recent clampdown in people-smuggling there, offered (with fees, of course) the refugees with dilapidated boats to go to Malaysia or Indonesia. However, the Rohingya people were shooed away outright or after being given some provisions by the authorities. They were later abandoned by the boat crew and smugglers, leaving the jam-packed boats adrift on the Andaman Sea and Malacca Straits.

Save for a few hundreds who have reached land and relative safely, such as those welcomed by the generous people in Aceh, a special region in Indonesia – “returning” the goodwill they received from the world following the devastating tsunami in December 2004 – thousands, many are hungry and sick, are still in their boats floating aimlessly and dangerously in Southeast Asian seas.

Sentro backs criminalization of violations of workplace safety standards, but …

ensuresafety

THERE’S no doubt that the workers and unions will fully support any measure that will provide “teeth” to the toothless collection of norms, rules and regulations on workplace safety in the country, called the Occupational Safety and Health Standards (OSHS).

This was assured by the national labor center Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (Sentro) amid moves to revive or fast-track pending OSH bills in the House of Representatives and the call from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) chief urging both houses of Congress to hasten the passage of bills that will criminalize noncompliance of safety standards in workplaces.

“The need for an effective or working OSHS, the one which commands respect and fear especially among those who violate or will try to violate these workplace safety standards, has further been underscored by the Kentex tragedy last May 13,” Josua Mata, Sentro secretary general, said.

“However, simultaneous with this newfound enthusiasm to finally clamp down on unscrupulous employers and companies that violate OSHS with impunity, is also the pressing need to fight contractualization or precarious work arrangements, which do not only perpetuate job insecurity, low wages, measly benefits and breed other abuses – but also prohibit the workers from organizing or joining a union,” Mata emphasized.

He explained that “unless the workers are regularized, they will never have a real union that can ensure that all well-meaning laws, including an OSHS with teeth, are actually and effectively implemented or enforced.”

Few days after that horrific factory fire which killed at least 72 workers and over 20 are still missing, the House Committee on Labor and Employment announced that it will hold a hearing on May 20 to discuss and possibly to fast-track four pending OSH-related bills – HB 2226, HB 2471, HB 4594 and HB 4635.

Joining the fray, DOLE Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz issued a statement exhorting the senators and congressmen to expedite the enactment of at least three House and Senate bills that will formally outlaw and prosecute violations of the OSHS – the already cited HB 2226 and 2471, and SB 1368.

The current OSH standards still do not prescribe criminal penalties, thus the need to finally “criminalize” – or make illegal or become punishable as a crime – the offenses or violations here. This “body of standards, rules and regulations” was promulgated in 1978 and amended in 1989.

NAGKAISA labor coalition calls on creation of a tripartite labor laws compliance inspection task force

#Justice4KentexWorkers! Justice for the #72workers killed at the Kentex fire!
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The lives and the scathing injury of KENTEX workers are the heavy price for the complete breakdown of government’s labor laws enforcement and for the employers’ patent disregard to the mandatory laws on wages, social protection benefits and the statutory basic workplace safety guidelines.

The KENTEX factory workers’ deaths depict the abominable culture of indifference among many public servants and profit-oriented employers to enforce existing guidelines that uphold workers’ basic rights and well-being.

Therefore, we, the undersigned convenors of the NAGKAISA Labor Coalition, collectively call on Labor Secretary Baldoz to establish a tripartite “Task Force Valenzuela” (TFV) to undertake a surprise sweep and unannounced inspection of factories and plants in the City of Valenzuela to crack down on sweatshops.

In the light of the tragedy that befell our fellow workers in KENTEX, we believe that it now becomes imperative to verify employer compliance with all existing labor laws and safety standards, fire and building structure standards and to determine compliance with all other city requirements for the issuance of business permits and operational licenses.

Justice must now not just be for the KENTEX dead and their families but also for the countless workers nationwide who labor under the same pakyawan system (piecework basis) or through unregistered and unregulated labor manning agencies, to be deployed without any statutory benefits, least of all minimum wages, into firetraps where their lives are sacrificed on the altar of profits. Disposable lives and in the case of the KENTEX workers, thrown away.

We strongly believe that the immoral and illegal activities of the KENTEX owners are actually widespread in Valenzuela, and the inspections should begin in the very factory neighborhood where the fire occurred and with those firms also serviced by the unregistered manning agency. The inspections should also cover those firms that undertook voluntary self-assessments of their labor standard compliance. It is never the best way to enforce labor or safety standards by relying on the mere “say-so” of a very self-interested employer and factory owner.

This proposed crackdown in Valenzuela will have national resonance and will hopefully, by making an example of those who will be caught, ensure that labor standard compliance will be honored more in the practice, rather than in its breach.

We urge the DOLE to seize the historical opportunity to render justice not just for the KENTEX workers but to finally break the widespread culture and practice of corporate irresponsibility that made the loss of the workers lives not just immoral but evil and criminal.

– NAGKAISA Labor Coalition

Sentro slams loopholes in labor standards inspection, certification

kentex2-300x233KENTEX FIRE

SECRETARY Rosalinda Baldoz made a hasty turnaround by branding the owners of Kentex Manufacturing Inc. “not only illegal but also immoral,” when a day before she said that the ill-fated factory has duly conformed to the general labor standards (GLS) and occupational safety and health standards (OSHS).

Baldoz announced last Thursday – a day after the horrifying fire that killed at least 72 Kentex workers – that the Valenzuela City-based slippers and sandals firm was granted by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) a certificate of compliance (COC) with GLS and OSHS following two inspections in January and September last year.

Baldoz explained that the COC issued by the DOLE-National Capital Region office proved that Kentex passed a joint assessment conducted by a DOLE labor inspector (labor laws compliance officer or LLCO) and representatives from the management and workers. She added that the company has even a safety committee that oversees safety rules and regulations.

Sick joke

The national labor center Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (Sentro) found Baldoz’ first statement to be distasteful or a sick joke in view of the Kentex fire’s high casualties with more than 20 still missing as well as the anguish of the victims’ families.

Even the company lawyer has virtually flaunted the DOLE’s COC as well as the fire safety certification from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) to deflect the growing public anger and criticism against the Kentex owners.

Josua Mata, Sentro secretary general, said that despite the about-face of Baldoz and the DOLE’s Department Order No. 131, series of 2013 (DO 131-13), or the Rules on Labor Laws Compliance System (LLCS), there is still much to be desired in the country’s GLS and OSHS inspection mechanism and enforcement, as well as on the need for enough number of LLCOs.

‘Amazing inspections’

Sentro expressed its amazement how the purported multiple “inspections” in the Kentex factory by the DOLE, BFP and the local government of Valenzuela failed to notice the very glaring fire hazards posed by the building’s narrow windows boarded up with iron grills and wire mesh that “not even cats could escape through.”

These concentration camp-like windows have trapped the workers and prevented them from escaping on the second floor from the fire that started on the ground floor.

Sentro further enumerated the company’s gross violations of OSHS – the prison-like windows, inadequate fire exits, absence of the mandatory sprinklers and fire drills in factories, overcrowding (number of workers vis-à-vis the size of the building), welding job near highly flammable chemicals that actually triggered the fire, and prior to the incident, the constant exposure of workers to foul-smelling chemicals.

And only after the tragedy that many other glaring violations of other labor laws were exposed in Kentex – GLS, minimum wage, social security and health benefits, illegal subcontracting (so the use of underpaid and overworked contractual workers).

Thus, the complaints of salaries below the minimum wage, withholding pensions, health benefits and other social security benefits (SSS, Philhealth, Pag-Ibig), and 12-hour working days. Kentex is also accused of using a fly-by-night labor subcontractor, the CJC Manpower Services, which had 104 workers at Kentex during the fire, 34 of whom were reported missing and presumed to be among the charred bodies found.

The DOLE immediately washed its hands of any responsibility regarding the said subcontractor by stating that Kentex might have hired CJC Manpower – which in turn provided the company with cheap piece-rate labor – only after the factory was awarded a COC with labor standards (GLS), such as on paying minimum wage and benefits, overtime pay, appropriate working hours, remittance of social security, etc.

This was seconded by Baldoz when she charged Kentex of using “the legitimacy of (DOLE) assessment as (a) cloak to circumvent our laws.” She emphatically added that Kentex “has engaged and is engaging the services of an illegal subcontractor … a violation of the Labor Code.”

Inspecting the labor laws compliance ‘inspection’

Government data show that a total of 76,880 companies were inspected in 2014, compared to an average of 23,400 firms checked in the previous decade. A high of 76 percent or 51,569 companies were deemed “compliant” with the GLS and OSHS.

However, in 2013 there were only close to 600 labor inspectors (LLCOs), a measly number compared to 944,897 business establishments operating in the Philippines as of 2012 – 99.6 percent or 940,886 are MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) and 0.42 percent or 4,011 are large enterprises.

Likewise, the focus on the so-called “voluntary compliance” and “self-assessment” in the DOLE’s LLCS has been described by a labor leader as if the government is “asking the wolf to guard the sheep. No wonder the sheep get slaughtered.”

Thus, there are suggestions to deputize reputable trade union leaders as LLCOs to substantially increase the ranks of labor inspectors and LLC inspections. The LLCOs from the unions and from the DOLE must of course undergo an intensive seminar and training on labor laws and LLCS, and could resist bribery and other forms of corruption that are routinely dangled by unscrupulous employers.

Sentro further added that organized labor should sit down to review the current LLCS with the end view of fixing its loopholes (legal, procedural, etc.) or weaknesses, increasing the coverage, strengthening the mechanism, and ensuring its enforcement.

“This drive is of course part and parcel of the overall campaign of the labor movement to uphold and protect labor and trade union rights,” Sentro said.

Nagkaisa seeks justice for Kentex workers, blames partial privatization of labor inspection

#Justice4KentexWorkers! Justice for the #72workers killed at the Kentex fire!
72kentex

Partial privatization of labor inspection, weak certification process and the endemic problem of corruption down to the local levels have consigned workers to precarious working conditions, including unnecessary deaths and accidents, the labor coalition Nagkaisa said in a statement.

The statement was issued in reaction to the statements made by the lawyer of Kentex Corp. and the labor department that the company has been compliant with safety standards.

Also this morning, members of Nagkaisa such as the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP), Sentro ng Nakakaisang Manggagawa (Sentro), Partido Manggagawa (PM), and the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) offered flowers as an expression of sympathy and solidarity for the dead workers at the Kentex factory in Valenzuela City.

In a protest rally held afterwards, labor groups reiterated their call that aside from compensation, criminal liabilities be exacted among the perpetrators of this terrible crime, including the violation of other labor standards at Kentex.

REUTERS/Erik De Castro

REUTERS/Erik De Castro

According to Nagkaisa convenor Josua Mata, the relaxation of labor inspection through “self-assessment” under DOLE’s Department Order No. 57-04 has rendered toothless the supposedly tough safety standards required in workplaces.

The conduct of self-assessment, according to Mata, is voluntary and is based from a labor standard checklist conducted by representatives of employers and workers.

“This partial privatization of labor inspection promoted evasion rather than voluntary compliance, while self-assessment conducted by the management in generally non-unionized workplace simply won’t work,” said Mata.

This self-assessment, according to TUCP, is followed by a weaker compliance certification process under the jurisdiction of DOLE’s regional offices.

On his part, Partido Manggagawa (PM) chair Renato Magtubo noted that the DOLE’s “Labor Laws Compliance System” (LLCS) inaugurated in 2013 and the hike in the number of labor inspectors to almost 600 is still not working. An audit by the International Labor Organization in 2009 revealed that with only 193 labor inspectors to inspect 784,000 companies, an establishment gets inspected only once every 16 years.

“A big loophole in the so-called LLCS is the focus on ‘voluntary compliance’ and ‘self-assessment’ by employers. Voluntary compliance and self-assessment means that the government is asking the wolf to guard the sheep. No wonder the sheep get slaughtered,” Magtubo lamented.

BMP President Leody De Guzman averred that endemic corruption at all levels aggravates the problem of compliance.

“Regulatory capture has always been the antidote to strict compliance to regulation in this country,” said De Guzman.