Achieving Happiness

April 6, 2011

40 Days After Deaths of Eton Workers, Families Reel from Loss

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ina Alleco @ 1:00 pm

Three-year old John Kirby said he knows what happened to his father . “Nahulog po siya,” (“He fell.”), he answered slightly lisping. Then he pointed to a building under construction. “Dyan siya nalaglag (That’s where he fell).”

Two-year old John Kirby's father is never returning home

John Birby’s father is Benbon Cristobal, 24, one of the 10 construction workers who were killed when a gondola crashed at the Eton Residences condominium project in Makati City last January 27.

Benbon, Joel Avecilla, William Bañez, , Jeffrey Diocado, Jaykie Legada, Kevin Mabunga, Celso Mabuting, Tisoy Perez, Vicente Piñion and Michael Tatlonghari were killed after their gondola dropped from the 32nd floor of the Lucio Tan-owned building. Only one worker Ruel Perez survived.

John Kirby’s mother and Benbo’s widow Lorraine Banzon, 22, said she has already explained to John Kirby why his father is never coming home.

“He said he understands but sometimes he still looks for his father,“ she said simply, in Filipino.

John Kirby, Lorraine and the loved ones and friends of the 10 victims were joined by support groups led by the Institute for Occupational Health, Safety and Development (IOHSAD) and the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER) in marking the 40th day of mourning after the accident in a candle-lighting ceremony at the site at Gallardo Street corner Paseo de Roxas in the heart of Ayala, Makati last March 4.

The network of supporters of the relatives also included the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), Task Force Urban Conscientization-AMRSP, and Task Force for Organizing of Church Personnel (TFOP-AMRSP).

In her conversations with supporters, Lorraine said her husband used to work even on Sundays so he could bring home more money. She remembers a time when Benbon worked seven days a week for almost four months. He had been an employee of Eton Properties’ subcontractor Arlo Aluminum for nearly four years, but Benbon was nowhere near to being given regular worker status.

“Now that he is gone, I do not know how I will be able to raise our son. I’m not employed,“ she said.

Denied the Right to Pursue Justice

Now the families of the victims face another challenge in their quest for justice.

According to news reports, the Makati City Prosecutor’s Office has already recommended the dismissal of the cases lodged against five construction executives of project previously charged for the deaths of the 10 workers.

Assistant Prosecutor Wilhelmina Go-Macaraeg alleged that the families of the workers have filed affidavits of desistance indicating their loss of interest in pursuing the case. In reports to the media, Macaraeg said the families gave notarized affidavits of desistance stating that they are no longer interested in pursuing the case against the persons charged in the case.

The Philippine National Police had previously filed a case of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and one count of serious physical injury against Arlo Aluminum Glass Corp. executives Eduardo Pinon, project manager Engineer Guillermo Torres, project in-charge Jason Rosette, and Ian Lester Agpoon, and engineer Sonny Romero of Jose Aliling Construction Management Corp.

The charges were filed after the police found negligence on the part of the construction executives that resulted in the deaths of the workers.

Anna Leah Escresa, EILER’s executive director, however, was quick to point out that the members of the families were deceived, forced to sign an affidavit they did not understand, a legal document that was not explained to them clearly.

Escresa said tthe families have received a lump sum of P150,000 ( $3,458) from the company, but the aggrieved relatives are saying that money is not enough. For one, the amount is too small, and the company has already said that its “assistance” ends after the cash has been given.

“You cannot put a price tag on lives,” Escresa said. “What the families want is justice for their relatives and guarantees that what happened in the Eton construction site would not happen again. We cannot just let Eton Properties and its contractors and subcontractors escape blame and accountability as families continue to mourn.”

Escresa pointed out that the victim’s families must be fully indemnified and not given just minimal financial assistance and scholarships. She asserted that the families did not sign anything willingly, and that they did not waive their rights to pursue justice against the company and its officials.

“Those responsible for the accident took more than ten 10 lives and permanently injured another. The victims and the lone survivor who still suffers painful physical injuries have families. The accident wrought extensive damage on the livelihood and well-being of workers’ families, and the effect is not measurable in the sense that it won’t only last a year, but a lifetime. Families should receive socio-psycho counseling and not just compensation – token cash,” she said.

“This is an issue of social justice, and an issue that has criminal implications. The families should not be denied their right to pursue justice and to demand it,” she said.

Most of the victims were very young and had they not been killed, could have lived long and productive lives.

Kevin Mabunga, for instance, was only 17 years old. His grandmother Paterna, said Kevin’s employment at the Eton site was his first and his last.

“He wanted to work even through he knew it was dangerous working in construction because he wanted to earn enough money to finish his studies and be able to help the family,“ she said in Filipino.

In the meantime, Escresa said the families and the support groups of the Eton 11 are determined to push the Department of Labor and Employment to look into the lingering labor and safety code violations in the Eton construction site. According to reports, even after the accident, construction workers in the Eton Residences project have still not been provided with necessary safety equipment. The company has also not complied with laws on minimum wages and the provision of legally-mandated benefits.

A Tangle of Subcontracting Schemes

Iohsad executive director Noel Colina shared that interviews with the families of the victims revealed that all the workers in the Eton Ayala site were all sub-contracted. Eton Properties hired Jose Aliling Construction Management Inc. as the construction manager, with CE Construction serving as the general contractor. Arlo Aluminum is the window contractor, which, in turn, secured the services of E.M. Pinon. It was Pinon which directly hired some of the victims.

“The construction workers of Eton are trapped in a complicated tangle of employment subcontracting arrangements wherein the main company, Eton, is able to weasel out of full responsibility for the workers,” said Colina.

The 11 workers who fell – like the rest of the more than 700 other workers of the Eton Residences site — did not receive wages mandated by law. An eight- hour work-shift in the National Capital Region should be compensated with at least P 404 ($9.31) daily wage, but most construction workers receive only P 260 ($6), with some receiving even less.

Escresa said big construction investors, like Lucio Tan-owned Eton, normally tap a web of subcontractors that employ contractual workers for specific parts of a construction project to minimize on labor cost.

“Subcontractors generally pay lower wages, and compromise health and safety standards to minimize costs.

Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Center in 2008 released a report saying that 1.79 million of the total 1.8 million workers in the Philippine construction industry are “contractuals” or project-based earning low wages.

Justice and Criminal Liability

In the aftermath of the accident, the Philippine National Police (PNP) filed criminal charges against officials of Eton’s sub-contractor. Based on findings, eight gondolas, including the one that fell causing the death of the 10 victims, were put up without a permit from Makati City Hall.

The city’s Department of Engineering and Public Works said its last inspection of the Eton Residence worksite was on October 28, 2010. The gondolas were reportedly installed after. The gondolas, including the one that fell, had a rated load of 630 kilos with a maximum capacity of two persons.

Makati Mayor Jejomar Erwin Binay had previously ordered a stop to the construction of the condominium building until investigations were completed and the safety of the workers were assured. Binay also issued work stoppage orders on some 35 medium and high-rise buildings in the city that were found to be violating provisions of the National Building Code and the Philippine Mechanical Code.

Escresa, however, said the filing of criminal charges early this month against the officials of Eton Properties’ subcontractors should not be an excuse to soften the pursuit of justice for the killed workers.

“We wonder why Eton Properties itself wasn’t included in the criminal case and only those officials of smaller firms were charged. We fear that those really accountable would get away scot-free,” she said.

“Justice must be accorded to the victims of the tragedy. A thorough investigation must be conducted by the authorities, one that will objectively look into the accountability of all firms involved – not just small subcontractors but also Eton Properties, Inc. itself.”

Worst Violations in the Construction Sector

The worst labor rights violations are daily committed in the country’s construction sector. Workers have no job security, they receive low wages, denied social security, have no protection against dismissals, receive no training, and are given only very limited or no health and safety at work- briefings. They are also not allowed to form or join unions.

The labor department has a standing order (Order no. 13-1998) which states the requirements for a Construction Safety and Health Program which companies must enforce in their construction sites before local government units give them building permits.

A construction permit or building permit is a permit required in most jurisdictions for new construction of buildings and is being issued by District Engineering Offices.

Included in the order is a stipulation that the constructor must provide for a full-time officer assigned to the general construction safety and health of the project. The constructor must also provide a “competent” emergency health personnel within the worksite complemented by adequate medical supplies, equipment and facilities.

A Construction Safety and Health Committee is also a requirement. It must be consisted of the project manager, General Construction Safety and Health Officer, safety representatives from each subcontractor, doctors/nurses, and workers’ representatives serving as its members.

The order also require constructors to furnish workers with protective equipment for eyes, face, hands, feet, lifeline, safety belt/harness, protective shields and barriers at his own expense.

Despite the existence of the order, many construction firms do not implement health and safety standards down to the letter.

Colina cites the case of another construction worker Rolando Arias, a co-worker of the 11 victims of the accident.

“Arias was brave enough to file a complaint at the DOLE; but when Eton Properties caught wind of his complaint , Arias found himself sacked,” he said.

Colina said that in the aftermath of the Eton tragedy, the labor department should clamp down on all erring companies and ensure their follow safety standards. He said the DOLE should scrap its Order 57-04 which allows companies to conduct self-assessment.

The DOLE itself has assessed its own self-assessment program, admitting that the number of labor inspectors have shrunk, from around 240 to less than 200 in the last five years. The number of establishments inspected has also gone down, from 60,000 in 2003, to only 6,000 last year.

In its 2009 occupational health and safety report, Iohsad recorded 26 deaths from the construction sector, with the mining sector, also part of the hazardous sector, on top with 84 deaths. “The DoLE should prioritize hiring new workplace inspectors to supplement the existing number of inspectors the Occupational Health and Safety Center (OHSC) has at its disposal. They should prioritize the hazardous sectors and ensure that at least every 6 months this workplaces undergo mandatory inspections,” said Colina.

“We are also pushing for the immediate ban on the use of asbestos in the Philippines. Many in the construction sector are exposed to the deadly dust it produces, which causes cancer. Companies should also be required by law to re-absorb their injured workers as soon as they become fit. We also hope that our legislators would start to discuss the possibility of legislating a law on industrial manslaughter.”#

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