Smoke still emanates from the burning HTI Panel Building on the morning of February 2: 
A fire that ravaged the plant which started on February 1 around 6:00p.m.,
injuring more than a hundred workers with 5 confirmed fatalities.
The photo reveals that on this day (Feb. 2) that only the posterior area of the plant
was left ablaze while the front can already be accessed as can be seen
with the presence of the HTI employees.

The fire tragedy at House Technology Industries Pte. Ltd. (HTI) has already been overshadowed by other events as weeks already passed by after the raging fire which started around 6:00 in the afternoon of February 1 and was declared out two days later.

Access to information was scarce, days during and after the fire. Media were barred to go inside the Cavite Export Processing Zone (CEPZ). Workers were instructed by the HTI management to erase photos and videos taken during the incident or surrender memory cards of their mobile phones. Uploading to social media, commenting, and sharing of allegedly “unauthorized information” were also discouraged among the workers.

To date, five fatalities were offcially recorded namely Jerome Sismaet, Richard Sargento, Alex Lerog, Jojo Arcinue, and Angelita “Ana” Caviteña. All of them survived the fire but succumbed to death while they were confined at the Divine Grace Medical Center (DGMC), with Caviteña dying after more than a week of being transferred to De La Salle University Medical Center  in Dasmariñas City, Cavite.

Other than the five workers, HTI management, through officials from the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) and Cavite Governor Jesus Crispin Remulla, declared that no other worker died and all workers were accounted for. However, the public is not fully-convinced with such claims.

The Workers Assistance Center (WAC), as one of the organizations that conducted a fact-finding mission, stands firm not to let the tragedy rest until all questions have been thoroughly answered, those liable are held accountable, and stricter measures are enforced to avoid another incident  of such magnitude happen in the  future.

HTI Fire Fast Facts

According to the National Fact-Finding Mission (NFFM) report, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Preliminary Report, and news articles regarding the fire in HTI, the fire started on the second floor of the production plant when one of its panel saw sparked that ignited the sawdust being sucked by a centralized vacuum.

The fire travelled through the vacuum ducts in the building and in less than five minutes, flames and thick black smoke engulfed the three-storey production plant. According to workers and survivors, the plant is filled with highly-combustible materials such as wood, styropor, and flammable chemicals such as thinner, 100% alcohol, solvent, and hydraulic oil among others.

126 workers were hospitalized including two Japanese supervisors. Burn injuries vary from mild to severe where five succumbed from it,  Caviteña being the recent fatality on February 23.

Since February 2, Gov. Remulla became the main source of information on the fire tragedy. This was due to the formation of the Crisis Management Committee at the time according to the DOLE initial report. HTI management and PEZA were silent and information was scant. Government agency officials, media networks, and other organizations were barred from entering CEZ premises. Even in hospitals, only relatives can go inside after securing ‘clearance’ from HTI management.

From February 3 to 7, search, rescue and retrieval operations were conducted by the Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and BFP. The team reported that they did not find any cadaver in the burned factory.

NFFM Report Points

Various organizations joined the NFFM headed by the Center of Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) along with WAC among others on February 4-5 to gather information regarding the industry fire that happened in HTI.

Among the glaring observations and experiences that the NFFM team had was the apparent restraint from workers to share their knowledge and personal account of the tragedy. Workers who were interviewed on the first day of the NFFM refused to grant follow up interviews on the next day while other teams said that workers and landlords denied altogether they knew any HTI worker living on the houses visited.

The NFFM team was denied entrance to hospitals and the CEZ premises to conduct inspection and interviews. The experience was also mutual with the DOLE investigating team when they went to CEZ on February 8.

DOLE Undersecretary Joel Maglunsod, who heads the investigation team, said in a dialogue with the NFFM organization’s representatives on February 17 at the DOLE Office in Intramuros, Manila  that they were also not allowed to go to the site when they were supposed to conduct a walkthrough. The sentiment was aired by DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello III in a press conference held last February 13 where he called for the review of the PEZA law and to restore to the department its power to conduct technical safety inspection in establishments located in PEZA-controlled areas.

Usec. Maglunsod however, welcomed the NFFM team efforts and welcomed their independent report on the tragic HTI fire incident. He also assured that the NFFM data will be considered while their investigation is still ongoing. The NFFM team representatives headed by Ms. Daisy Arago, Executive director of CTUHR, were provided copies of DOLE’s preliminary report on the industry fire.

The NFFM’s full report also detailed the horrific accounts of survivors where one crawled over unconscious bodies of her co-workers and were able to escape by jumping from outside the windows in the second and third floor after they broke its glasses. According to them, no one used the fire exits since they were locked. The report also noted that only two fire exits lead to the outside of the building while the rest of the exits land inside the factory. The passageway also was not wide enough to accommodate the workers in panic to get out causing a stampede.

One survivor said that Gov. Remulla’s claim that no one died aside from the three team leaders while in the hospital was incredulous since he was not able to pull his co-workers on his way out of the raging inferno.

The Cavite governor also reiterated in a press conference at DOLE last February 13 that all HTI workers have been accounted for but for the NFFM team documentation, they interviewed three HTI agency-hired workers who never reported back to their respective manpower agencies or the company itself. Thus the question arise, were the accounted employees only those regular and casual (directly-hired contractual) workers excluding agency-hired workers from six agencies supplying manpower to HTI?

PEZA Absolved HTI

On February 6, media outfits reported that PEZA absolves HTI from any liabilities regarding the fire tragedy by saying it was an accident and HTI did not commit any safety violations based on their investigation. CNN Philippines quoted PEZA Director General Charito Plaza said that HTI complied with all safety laws, rules and regulation.

"Walang pagkakamali [They did nothing wrong], because we conduct inspection of their compliance to fire and occupational safety twice a year. The last time HTI was inspected was in July 2016, and they are so compliant," Plaza said.

It was not only PEZA who had said HTI is a compliant company. DOLE Regional Office IV-A likewise issued HTI with  a Certificate of Compliance with Labor Standards and Occupational Safety and Health on February 11, 2016.

For WAC, however, absolving HTI from any fault on the tragedy was too premature since the BFP has not yet concluded its investigation surrounding the fire incident. On the other hand, the seeming acquittal also came too quick because even PEZA and DOLE’s own formal investigation has not started then and the search, rescue, and retrieval operations is still on-going.

The thought that the company is not liable and that the fire incident should be considered as purely accident which nobody wants to happen is very evident also on HTI workers remarks especially on social media and on those interviewed by WAC. They have tasked themselves to collectively defend and absolve from any accountability their company for fear that public condemnation may lead to government’s closure of the company or relocation outside of the country.

According to WAC, with HTI’s magnitude of production which uses high technology, implementation of safety procedures should be close to nil if not zero, or an accident with such proportion could have been avoided if the Safety First Policy is enforced strictly in every stage of production.

PEZA’s absolution of HTI without first concluding a formal investigation is the height of its apathy. Again, PEZA has just proven itself that it stands always on the interest of the foreign investors and biased against the plight of the workers.

Tragedy Caused by Gross Negligence

It was not an accident, said WAC. The fire was caused by gross negligence of the HTI management. It was a tragedy waiting to happen.

An HTI supervisor, who requested anonymity for fear of possible reprisal, validated the NFFM report. He said that the fire originated on the second floor of the Panel Building when a panel saw machine sparked when it hit a metallic object in the wood that it was cutting. The spark ignited the sawdust and sucked by the vacuum.

He said that it was relayed to them when company officials called them for the accident briefing – a practice according to him when accidents happen in the factory. However, this time no accident report was posted that supposed to be done after the briefing.

He also related further that possible metallic objects that may cause spark in the wood are nails, and screws inadvertently dropped and pressed in between wood panels. A possible cause would also be from industrial staple wires.  He said that wood panels in waiting are stacked and covered with some sort of a sack so that the wood won’t get wet. Still, to prevent the cover from being blown the workers staple the sack into the wood. And workers usually do not inspect if the wood is free from foreign materials before loading into the machine.

No Cover-up

As early as February 4, Gov. Remulla assured the public in his press briefing that there was no cover up and that the management at that time was talking to its employees. He also added that the HTI management will not lie to him and that confusion may result if several officials address the public.

However, this was not how the NFFM team felt during the conduct of their investigation. In an article published at the Manila Times Online on February 5, HTI fire: Cover-up? – its author Ms. Katrina Santiago shared her doubt while monitoring social media threads while the fire ravages the factory.

She captured the shift in the story, “… The conversations were being shifted from talking about workers trapped and survivor testimonials, to insisting that no one had died.”

WAC also observed such ‘peculiarity’ with the development of the events. In this social-media-frenzy-era it is very strange that thousands of workers employed by HTI no other posts relating to the accident could be found. It is very common for workers to post from anything to everything in their social media accounts such as going to work and back home or eating together something with someone or doing nothing.

Ms. Santiago voiced out WAC’s very same doubts and questions regarding the events following the fire such as: why were media outfits, concerned government agencies, and organizations were not allowed to enter CEZ premises let alone the site when CEZ is the largest government-owned and operated economic zone in the country? Was the HTI fire incident not a public concern that merit public scrutiny and transparency especially Filipino workers limbs and lives are at stake?

Like the public, WAC has doubts lingering since there was no independent, transparent and impartial investigation conducted immediately after the fire. The search, rescue, and retrieval report by PNP-SOCO and BFP was expected since they were allowed to enter the site a day after fire out was declared.

An HTI worker related that when the fire was declared under control on February 2 and fire broke out again on the same day, the rear part of the factory was burning and the front where the employees’ entrance and main road is located was ‘cool’ enough to be entered.

It should also be noted that it was during this day at the afternoon when a media outfit was stopped short in taking further footages thru its drone.

One of the staff of WAC attested to the narrative and said that he took stills and footages at the front of the HTI building in the morning of the same day. He noticed that HTI personnel, presumably its firefighting corps, went near in front of the factory making the chances of clearing the area before investigators could get in very much possible.

Hospital Role

In the press conference called by DOLE on February 13, Gov. Remulla was heard saying that Divine Grace Medical Center (DGMC), where most of the HTI fire victims were rushed for treatment due to its proximity from CEPZ, mishandled the patients because it took them too long to refer victims to other hospitals that have burn units for better treatment.

DGMC thru its Medical Director Dr. Ismael Mercado said that there were no attempts from the hospital management to delay or deny the transfer of patients to other hospitals. He further said that the hospital, on the third hospital day, consulted the relatives of the patients with the HTI management to transfer the severely wounded but declined. Other patients, who requested to be transferred on February 6, were allowed after proper coordination with authorities.

But the hospital management claims were contrary to what the relatives said.

According to some relatives, they wanted to transfer their patients to other hospitals on the first day since DGMC couldn’t attend to the needs of the patients promptly while on the other hand, the two Japanese supervisors who were rushed to Gen. Trias (G.T.) Hospital were immediately transferred to St. Luke’s Medical Center on February 2 according to news reports.

Hospitals especially G.T. Hospital and DGMC implemented stringent rules on visitation. As stated previously, visitors must gain ‘clearance’ from HTI management to allow entrance in DGMC practically blocking anyone like media practitioners and independent organizations to talk with the relatives of the patients if not the patient himself/herself.

Hence, WAC’s doubts arise: did the hospitals took part in controlling and limiting the leak of any information regarding the fire incident in choosing not to disperse the burn patients to more capable hospitals for treatment so that HTI management could ‘contain the situation’ better than to transfer them to hospitals as far as Manila?

Moreover, if the concern of hospital officials is the well-being of the patients isn’t it the more tolerable recourse for them was to transfer them to hospitals that have burn units or appropriate facilities to effectively attend to the needs of such patients after they administered first aid than to retain them having only qualified staff to treat such injuries?

WAC thinks that hospitals should also be investigated regarding their actions and participation in the aftermath of the HTI fire tragedy.

G.T. hospital is the partner-hospital of HTI and its sister companies like Wu Kong and SCAD according to an HTI worker.

The Public Deserves the Truth

In a media release by the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER) on February 21 said that about 1,328 HTI workers were still unaccounted for based on the Preliminary Report of DOLE’s investigation team.

“The public deserves to know the truth. The data we have gathered in our fact-finding mission show that the real picture is totally different from and worse than the hasty and questionable statements that were made by government officials,” said Ms. Daisy Arago of CTUHR and spokesperson of the NFFM.

 “We demand that the HTI management release the complete list of its 13,000 workforce and identify the workers who reported for work on February 1. Without HTI’s full disclosure, doubts will linger and allegations of hiding the truth and evading full responsibility will continue,” Ms. Arago added.

The group slammed the repeated claims of Gov. Remulla and PEZA Director-General Plaza that there were no fatalities and that only a few workers were injured during the fire while welcomed the resolutions of legislators from the Makabayan bloc calling for an investigation.

As early as February 6, the Makabayan bloc composed of lawmakers from progressive party lists, namely Bayan Muna, Anakpawis, Gabriela Women’s Party, ACT Teachers Party, and Kabataan Party, in the House of Representatives filed House Resolution 747 seeking an independent and public investigation amid the deemed whitewashing of ecozone officials and local government in providing details to uncover the causes and aftermath regarding the HTI industry fire.

The resolution was preceded by resolution 746 filed by Gabriela Women’s Party to inquire on working conditions inside the special economic zones.

“The HTI factory fire is too big a workplace disaster to be dismissed,” said Gabriela Women’s Party Representative Emmi de Jesus in a statement published online by GMA News on February 6.

Ms. Arago recalled that the Committee on Labor and Employment (CLE) in the House of Representatives swiftly called an inquiry a week after the Kentex fire tragedy in 2015. She furthered that the result of the probe revealed violations on occupational health and safety (OHS) standards, the glaring weaknesses of labor laws with regard to inspections and employers’ compliance, and the lack of strong penalties for companies who violate OHS standards. As a result, House Bill 64, An Act Strengthening Compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Standards and Providing Penalties for Violations thereof - was filed last December 2016.

“More than the actual numbers and facts, we seek justice for the workers who died, got injured and affected by HTI’s neglect of workers’ safety,” Ms. Arago said

NFFM Recommendations

As of this writing, no official statement detailing the cause of the fire accident from authorities especially from the HTI management has been published.

On the other hand, persistent and pervasive stories of victims trapped inside the burning factory continue to haunt to this day. WAC sources from the HTI workers wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the HTI management.

HTI should indemnify the workers and their families accordingly. Though no amount of money can really compensate for the loss, indemnification will be the least HTI management can give especially to those maimed and lost the chance to get their jobs back.

Unless and until a full and truthful disclosure of the tragedy is done, and no one was held accountable and brought to the bar of justice, life of the workers would always be at the mercy of the incorrectly certified compliant companies, like the HTI.

For truth and justice to come out and corrective measures are pursued, WAC holds on to the NFFM recommendations:

  1. Immediate, transparent, thorough, independent and impartial investigation on the HTI tragedy free from intervention by the HTI management, PEZA and Cavite LGU to lend credence to the result. At the very least, the investigation must pave way for full and complete disclosure of casualties so that justice can find its due course;
  2. A review of the company’s Certificate of Compliance vis-a-vis the National Building Code, Fire Code and the Fire Protection and Control under Occupational Safety and Health Standards of 1989, and to hold accountable all those responsible for the fire tragedy; 
  3. A full disclosure of workers hired through the agencies, and complete examination if those agencies are accredited by DOLE and not just plain Labor Only Contractor; and determine the HTI accountability for engaging their services; strict enforcement of prohibition of Labor only contracting;
  4. The NFMM reiterates its call for the mandatory, strict and frequent safety inspection of all establishments by the Labor Department. Results of the inspection should be approved by the genuine representative of the workers and presented to the public immediately. The inspecting authorities should take measures against companies concealing their safety standards. We support the immediate passage of the Worker’s SHIELD (Safety and Health Inspection and Employer’s Liability Decree) as it is a big leap towards the mandatory inspection of all establishments. 
  5. To legally ensure that enforcement of occupational safety and health standards are mandatory and legally enforceable, abolishing the voluntary compliance system on OSH; 
  6. In relation to the above, immediately pass the SHIELD bill that has got approval at the plenary of House of Representatives;
  7.  Review and amend, and when necessary repeal the Special Economic Zone Act of 1995 that grants authority to economic zones to operate under independent charter, and to function independently away from the scrutiny of government agencies and the general public and act like a separate entity that is government by separate labor laws and regulations.

WAC is not yet ready to wrap this thing up because the horrific stories of the workers who survived emphatically reverberate – MANY WERE LEFT BEHIND.