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The Kentex Fire: A Conversation with Walden Bello

 

Former Congressman and Akbayan Party Member Walden Bello Photo by oneworld.at

I recently ran into former Congressman Walden Bello. Last year, he and I had worked on several human trafficking cases involving OFWs in Kuwait. Walden and his wife Ko were fresh from a trip from the US, where he had given several talks. I asked him what he had been doing since he left Congress: not surprisingly, he has kept to a busy schedule. He has been involved in investigating the recent fire at the Kentex slipper factory in Valenzuela—the third biggest industrial disaster the country has witnessed, with 72 casualties, many of whom were women and children. He continues to be actively involved in Akbayan and, later this year, will be a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he’s been appointed to the post of Activist-in-Residence. At nearly 70 years old, Walden has long been recognized as an important public intellectual and activist, not only in the Philippines, but in much of the rest of the world.

Many Filipinos know Walden for having been a supporter--but also an ardent critic--of the administration’s programs. What were the forces that influenced his development and made him into the person that he is today, I asked him?

Born in Manila in 1945, his family spent his preschool years on the small island of Cielito Lindo—an island in Laguna de Bay—off the coast of Cardona, Rizal. While his family was far from elite, they were able to afford Walden a solid Jesuit education, culminating in a degree from the Ateneo. Graduate school in the US led to exposure to the politics of the anti-war movement in the country. While at Princeton, he led an anti-war occupation of the Woodrow Wilson Center. The incident of being hauled off by police during protests in the 1970s was a radicalizing experience that became a pivot towards a life of long-term social and political activism.

His graduate research included the shanty-towns of Chile in the wake of Allende’s socialist victory. What he thought would be a dissertation on socialist mobilization ended up being on anti-communist reactionary movements, comparing Germany, Italy and Chile. Just as he returned to the US to defend his dissertation, Martial Law was declared in the Philippines—his passport was confiscated and he could no longer return. During that period, he became a full time activist and organizer with the anti-Marcos solidarity movement in the US, taught at UC Berkeley and eventually joined the Philippine Communist Party.

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Upon returning to the Philippines two years after the EDSA People Power revolt, he became disillusioned with the Communist Party, as stories emerged in the late 80s and early 90s of Communist purges of people suspected of being double agents. Instead, he joined Akbayan, a left-of-center party, and was elected to Congress in 2010. The central concerns put forth during his tenure included the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), anti-corruption, energy policy, anti-globalization, and OFW rights. 

Finally, it’s important to note that Walden’s advocacies have always been regional and transnational in scope, not merely national. A truly cosmopolitan public intellectual, his concerns with national issues have always been framed by a larger international context. Problems with  national security, the environment, human trafficking, poverty, and globalization, can only be solved with reference to their regional context. For the same reason, political reform cannot be sustained except through more democratic participation in the political process. Take, for example, his concern with China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea. He’s made it clear that dependence on the US is not enough and, in fact, may be deleterious to a workable solution. Instead, he has been pushing for ASEAN to come up with a more coherent regional strategy, and to get the country’s legal adjudication by the UN.

Walden’s critical observations are those of a political activist who has fought long for social justice and democracy both here and abroad. Whether or not you agree with him, he comes across as one of the few public figures with a finely-honed sense of integrity in the service of pursuing social justice.

More recently, Walden has been part of the wider investigation of the tragic Kentex factory fire in Valenzuela City. There are a number of unanswered questions and blatant irregularities concerning the company, he points out. To begin with, the company had been given a clean bill of health by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). But a closer look has revealed a number of serious issues.

In the wake of intense scrutiny, Secretary of Labor Rosalinda Baldoz now admits that the owners of Kentex Manufacturing violated employment laws meant to guarantee minimum salaries, pensions, and social security. In particular, she confirmed that the company used a “fly-by-night subcontractor” to hire casual workers, with the middle-man agency not paying required salaries and benefits.

After his own early investigation, Bello decried slipshod and variable government business regulations, in particular its leniency toward big business relative to the more onerous and demanding requirements faced by small and micro businesses. This practice of double standards, he contends, leads to an erosion of good governance. Walden’s perceptions resonate with Secretary Baldoz’s views that the practices of the company were not only illegal but immoral, bereft of any sense of social responsibility.

But he questions whether DOLE’s condemnation of Kentex may have been too little, too late. As Walden points out, DOLE had previously cleared the company with an Occupational Health and Safety Clearance. Yet he found out from the workers that no fire drills were ever conducted and they were never visited by any Safety Inspectors. He also raised the question why the factory had just one exit and no emergency exits.

The more serious problem lies in this: many of the Kentex workers were contractual, earning way below minimum wage. Earlier, a DOLE Circular was issued that allowed companies with less than 200 employees to conduct their own occupational health and safety inspections. Walden pointed out the problem with this stance: DOLE was essentially allowing companies to police themselves and so escape any serious sanctions.

But DOLE, after all, is just part of the story. Global competition involves a great many rating lists where developing nations continually attempt to claw their way up higher on the list. One such priority is “ease of doing business”--minimizing red tape—is indeed beneficial to local and transnational business and leads to more and better jobs.

However, as part of its “one-stop-shop” approach to business licensing, it appears that Kentex was granted a temporary Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) permit to operate while pending a future inspection that never took place. The tragic fire, unexpectedly, came first.

DOLE and BFP must now come to grips with the familiar devils of implementation regarding the one-stop-shop innovation. Walden stresses that innovations in aid of globalization should not be allowed to put the lives of Filipino workers at stake.

The other familiar devil is accountability. In the case of Kentex, DOLE is now filing a number of charges. This is a welcome development in light of other recent tragedies that claimed the lives of 11 construction workers in Bulacan, eight female workers of AsiaTech in Pasay, 10 construction workers in Eton Towers, and 17 women workers at Novo in Butuan. Business owners must not be allowed to feel entitled to a sense of impunity.

Issues like these are exactly why Walden doesn’t even like to use the word “globalization.” I described his position as “anti-globalization” above, but his contention is that the term has become synonymous with the word “Luddite” and he is far from being that. Neoliberal globalization is based on a dogma of deregulation, privatization, free trade and streamlining—which is to say, reducing—government oversight in general. Walden’s stance recognizes that those pressures are constantly at play in the economic well-being of our country.

However, he strongly opposes the various kinds of harm those policies can do to the poor and working classes. Instead, he urges strengthening safety regulation, making them more effective and efficient. Streamlining ease of doing business in pursuit of better transnational ratings should ultimately not be allowed to come at the cost of workers’ lives. 

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