Widowed by the Eton accident

First published in Blogwatch

Young sweethearts Lorraine and Benbon Cristobal were thinking of having a second child four years after the birth of their first. They dreamed of building a bigger family, optimistic that they would be able to survive despite meager wages and rising prices.

But last January 27, their dreams were cut when the cable of the gondola carrying Benbon and 10 others at the Eton Residences construction site in Makati Citysnapped. Benbon and nine other construction workers died in thedeadly plunge from the condominium’s 28th floor. The other one miraculously survived, though with broken shoulders and pelvis.

Eton Residences is a condominium project by Eton Properties Philippines, Inc., the real estate arm of the Lucio Tan Group of Companies. Ironically, the condo tower is described in the company’s website as a “luxury oasis in the heart of Makati.”

Lorraine shared how her husband’s death affected their son. “After the accident, our son often mutters ‘Tatalon ako sa gondola, tatalon ako sa gondola’ (I will jump from the gondola, I will jump from the gondola,” she said. “Perhaps he absorbed the news.”

In a snap, ten families were broken in what appears to be company violations of occupational health and safety standards in favor of higher profits. And apparently, the government would not know the violations had it not been for the tragic news.

The labor department’s Department Order No. 13-2008, or the occupational health and safety guidelines in the construction industry, requires construction projects to have safety personnel.

The lone survivor, however, said there were no safety personnel in the construction site ensuring the normal load of the gondola, which can carry only two to three persons.

Another worker in the same project admitted that it has been normal for them to ride the gondola as a group since the company does not care about it. “We are often joking that the gondola will plunge every time we are riding it.”

“Before the gondola plunged, they were all cheerfully singing,” the worker who requested anonymity said.

It was also learned that the gondolas being used in the Eton Residences construction site have no permits.

‘2nd most hazardous’

The Institute for Occupational Health and Safety for Development (IOHSAD) noted that construction is the second most hazardous sector. In 2009, the group recorded 26 deaths and 116 injuries in the sector, while 84 deaths were counted in the mining sector.

The government recorded in 2010 around 2 million workers in the male-dominated construction industry, or 5 percent of the total 36 million employed.

IOHSAD also called for the junking of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) department order no. 57-2004, which exempts workplaces with at least 200 workers from government inspection.

Slave-like conditions

Beyond health and safety risks, the tragedy also exposed Eton workers’ slave-like living as they were underpaid yet overworked.

Mainstream reports mentioned that Eton workers earn P260 a day, way below the P404 minimum wage in the National Capital Region. However, in an interview, Lorraine clarified that Benbon had actually been receiving less than P260 for more than three years, and that it was only recently that her husband got a pay hike.

She said Benbon, 24, was actually earning P160 a day. “Then it was recently raised to P210, then P230.”

A labor NGO observed that big developers like Eton normally tap a web of contractors and subcontractors to contractual and low-paid workers to minimize cost.

In contrast to its construction workers’ slave wages, Eton reported a seven-fold growth in profits in November last year to P530 million.

Benbon had been working for manpower subcontractor E.M Piñon for four years. He was hired by developers as a glass installer for different construction projects,  including Serendra condominiums and McKinley Hill, both in Taguig City.

In between work for development projects, Benbon was ordered to do construction-related or maintenance services in other establishments owned by the primary developer, her wife said.

“When he does overtime work, he arrives home by 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. He also often works on Sundays since his income is really not enough,” Lorraine said, adding that Benbon only earns around P1,250 a week.

Lorraine and her family rents a cramped space somewhere in the outskirts of Antipolo City at P500 a month. They have no electricity and are sharing a communal rest room with their neighbors.

Benbon, like his fellow workers, was not a member of the Social Security System (SSS) and was not receiving benefits and 13th month pay. In most cases, construction workers are also subject to “no work, no pay” schemes by contractors and subcontractors even if they are injured or sick.

Under the scheme, workers have not been paid since the suspension of the Eton condominium project even as the Labor Code guarantees their continued pay since the stoppage is not their doing.

Some Eton Residences workers even spoke of dubious deductions on their payslip. A report said they pay the “occasional but mandatory ‘abuloy’ of P50,” even if workers are not shown death certificates of any kind.

These working conditions at Eton paint a picture contrary to the Aquino administration’s avowed agenda to expand its labor standards enforcement to include not only payment of minimum wage but also SSS and Philhealth premiums.

Loved one priced like one square meter

Almost a week after the accident, Eton and its contractor Arlo Aluminum announced a financial assistance of P1.4 million to the families of ten slain Eton workers, or P140,000 per family.

The assistance per family, quite insultingly, is barely above the price of one square unit of the condominium which their loved ones were working on.

Eton Residences units, which are 46.73 to 152.47 square meters, are priced at P4.5 million to P16.7 millionbased on the pre-selling rates. This means that one square meter of the condo unit is priced on the average at around P102,913.

While Eton said the financial assistance represents only the first tranche, families of the slain workers said no amount of money can equal their loved ones.

Up to now, no one has been held liable for the tragedy as Eton and its contractors and subcontractors continue to play the blame game. The labor department, meanwhile, only announced that Eton workers will undergo safety and health training.

Still, the risks have not been reduced. Unless the government does something concrete, it wouldn’t be long before another Lorraine gets widowed by a construction accident.



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