Manila, Philippines (AFP) – The owners of a Philippine factory where 72 people died in a fire could face time in prison, a government task force said Saturday, vowing to punish anyone found responsible as anger grows over the tragedy.
The special inter-agency task force, including members from the national police, the fire-fighting service, the justice and health departments, have been given two weeks to finish their investigation, said spokesman Renato Marcial.
“Definitely, if someone deserves to be punished, they will be punished,” he told AFP.
The blaze in a two-storey footwear factory in an industrial suburb of the Philippine capital on Wednesday has highlighted the unsafe working conditions for many in this poverty-stricken nation.
The fire started when sparks from a welder repairing a metal gate apparently ignited nearby chemicals.
Marcial said that the company, Kentex Manufacturing, should have had a special permit for such a dangerous welding job and its owners could face charges for safety lapses.
This could range from six months to six years in jail – but, he said, the scale of the fatalities could result in more stringent punishment.
He said the investigation will be “complete, thorough and based on scientific findings”.
Labour Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, who initially said the company had followed regulations, has since branded it “immoral” and accused it of a raft of illegal labour practices such as using unregistered “sub-contractors” to get around paying workers the proper amount.
Representatives of both Kentex and the sub-contractor CJC Manpower Services have been summoned to a special meeting with the Labour Department on Monday, Baldoz said.
AFP was unable to contact officials from either company for comment. CJC Manpower’s Facebook page only contained a list of job openings.
Representatives for Kentex this weekend gave out an initial 13,000 pesos ($295) to survivors and families of the victims as assistance in the wake of the fire.
However Rex Gatchalian, mayor of the district where the fire occurred, criticised the company, saying “Kentex is giving them once again the shorter (end) of the stick”.
“This goes to show what type of employer Kentex is and how they treat their employees. These are the same people who gave their lives,” he said in a statement.
President Benigno Aquino’s spokeswoman Abigail Valte said that the fire had prompted the government to step up its enforcement of labour regulations.
“That’s why the Labor Department is also intensifying their inspections when it comes to the industrial work places like (Kentex),” she told reporters.
About 50 activists held a candlelight vigil for the dead workers at a local university, carrying signs saying “Justice for Kentex workers.”