Anger in Manila as death toll from factory fire rises to 72; barred windows blamed

A police forensics team carrying a body bag containing the remains of a victim killed in a fire that gutted a footwear factory in Valenzuela city in suburban Manila on May 14, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP 
A police forensics team carrying a body bag containing the remains of a victim killed in a fire that gutted a footwear factory in Valenzuela city in suburban Manila on May 14, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Fire investigators looking for evidence among the ruins of a footwear factory in suburban Manila on May 14, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Fire investigators looking for evidence among the ruins of a footwear factory in suburban Manila on May 14, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Protesters holding placards, while displaying sandals on the ground, during a rally to call for justice for the victims of a fire that gutted a footwear factory the day before, in Manila on May 14, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Protesters holding placards, while displaying sandals on the ground, during a rally to call for justice for the victims of a fire that gutted a footwear factory the day before, in Manila on May 14, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Seventy-two people died when a fire tore through a footwear factory in the Philippine capital, the authorities said on Thursday, as survivors blamed barred windows for the disaster and described sweatshop conditions.

Nearly all of those killed in Wednesday’s five-hour blaze were trapped on the second floor of the two-storey building, unable to break steel bars over the windows, according to survivors and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas.

“They were screaming for help, holding on to the bars,” factory worker Randy Paghubosan, one of the few on the ground floor who escaped, told AFP as faint smoke still billowed from the ruins on Thursday.

“When we could no longer see their hands, we knew they had died... they died because they were trapped on the second floor.”

Roxas promised justice for the victims as he expressed anger at the lack of fire exits and the cause of the blaze – welding that was being carried out near flammable chemicals.

“Why was welding work allowed near all those chemicals? Why were the second floor windows enclosed in steel bars? Why were 69 of the 72 on the second floor,” Roxas told reporters after meeting with victims’ relatives.

The factory, among a long row of similar businesses in the rundown district of Valenzuela on the northern edge of the Philippine capital, made cheap slippers and sandals for the local market.

- Sweatshop -

The factory workers toiled for well below minimum wage while surrounded by foul-smelling chemicals and had no fire safety training, according to survivors, relatives and the nation’s biggest union.

“The families can’t help but be angry about what happened. We will never forget this,” Rodrigo Nabor, whose two sisters were inside the factory and presumed dead, told AFP.

Nabor was among relatives of factory workers waiting for body bags at a village hall that had been converted into a makeshift morgue.

Nabor said his sisters, Bernardita Logronio, 32, and Jennylyn Nabor, 26, often complained of foul-smelling chemicals in their workplace.

“They said they keep an electric fan on to drive some of the smell away,” he said.

Nabor said their pay depended on how many flip-flops they finished, which could be as little as 300 pesos (S$9) a day. Nabor’s sisters each had a young child.

The minimum wage in Manila is 481 pesos a day.

One survivor, 23-year-old Lisandro Mendoza, said he escaped by running out the back door, but that the company had not conducted any fire safety education or drills during his five months working there.

“We were running not knowing exactly where to go... if people had known what to do, it would have been different,” said Mendoza.

Other survivors also told AFP that the small company that ran the factory had not carried out any fire safety drills in years.

Mendoza said he worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, for 3,500 pesos, mixing chemicals.

“It’s a very foul smell. I can still smell it even if I have one face mask on top of the another,” he said.

The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, the largest labour federation in the country, said its preliminary investigation revealed extremely dangerous conditions for the factory workers.

“We found out that the building had no fire exits... they had no safety officers who could handle chemicals... so there were many health and safety violations,” union spokesman Alan Tanjusay told AFP.

When Roxas met with relatives of the victims near the factory site, they told him the employer did not remit social security and health insurance contributions.

Others said their dead relatives were hired through a middleman, which reduced their already small pay.

“Why were these payments not being remitted? Why were some of them hired through a middleman? The labour department will investigate this,” Roxas said.

AFP was unable to contact management or spokespeople for the company, Kentex Manufacturing Corporation.

Deadly fires regularly rip through poor areas of the Philippine capital, mostly in shanty homes where there are virtually no fire safety standards.

In the deadliest fire in Manila in recent times, 162 people were killed in a huge blaze that gutted a Manila disco in 1996.