Philippines pushes job safety laws after deadly factory fire

Activists hold candles and placards during a rally in Manila on May 16, 2015 for the victims of a fire that gutted a footwear factory on May 13. Philippine officials called on Sunday, May 17, for criminal penalties for factory owners who violate
Activists hold candles and placards during a rally in Manila on May 16, 2015 for the victims of a fire that gutted a footwear factory on May 13. Philippine officials called on Sunday, May 17, for criminal penalties for factory owners who violate safety standards days after a deadly fire at a footwear plant claimed 72 lives. -- PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine officials called Sunday for criminal penalties for factory owners who violate safety standards days after a deadly fire at a footwear plant claimed 72 lives.

Occupational safety standards were adopted by the Asian nation in 1978 but lack teeth because parliament has failed to pass a law imposing penalties against violators, Labour Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said.

"I (can) not overemphasise its importance - and the timeliness of our plea to our lawmakers - in the light of accidents in our workplaces, some of which have injured and claimed the lives of our workers," she said in a statement.

A huge fire that killed 72 people and gutted a flip-flop factory in a Manila suburb on Wednesday exposed the unsafe conditions many work under across the nation.

Baldoz has called the factory's owners "immoral" and accused them of a raft of illegal labour practices.

Relatives of the victims told AFP the workers were paid well below the minimum wage of 481 pesos (S$14.30) a day and forced to toil 12-hour shifts, seven days a week without overtime pay.

They said legally required social security and health insurance payments were also withheld, and workers were forced to constantly inhale foul-smelling chemicals.

A lawyer for the gutted footwear factory has rejected allegations it had flouted labour laws.

Baldoz said the legislature has yet to act on three related bills, including one imposing criminal penalties for non-compliance with occupational safety and health standards.

The second bill calls for occupational safety regulations in the construction industry and the third would require protective equipment and uniform warnings at work places, she added.

Some of the proposed measures were drawn up as early as 2011, Baldoz added.

Rex Gatchalian, mayor of the industrial district of Valenzuela that hosted the footwear factory, also urged the government to outlaw the practice of paying workers only when they reach a certain production quota.

"This is a practice that we see everywhere.... It's technically illegal," he said in an interview over ABS-CBN television.