Slippers and Cinders

We all know the Cinderella story: at the final stroke of midnight, Cinderella ran off from the village ball. The majestic carriage became a pumpkin again, and her magnificent horses turned back into mice. All that was left of Cinderella in that ball was the glass slipper left on the stairs of the Prince’s castle.

We all know what happened to that slipper, and how the Prince and Cinderella lived happily ever after.

I don’t think they did make glass slippers in Kentex: they made “Havanas,” and all other sorts of flip-flops and sandals. People weren’t running away because Fairy Godmothers will reverse their blessings on the stroke of midnight, but because they can’t leave a burning factory with barred windows and locked exits.

There was no “happily ever after:” just the pittances and indignation that came with a fire fuelled less by an errant spark from a welder’s arc, but moral hazards poured over 72 people who perished in that fire.

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Just days before the Kentex tragedy, the annual Make Your Own Havaianas event was in full swing. “Tsinelas” transformed into “flip-flops,” personalized and designed in all sorts of ways, little rubber Cinderella slippers. The fun there was to be had in making a pair of Havaianas truly your own somehow stands – in a twisted sense of irony – in stark contrast with what happened in Valenzuela. You think about over a hundred laborers inside a factory doing everything that makes a P30 slipper: molding rubber, cutting and trimming pieces, assembling the product, and so on. Our sensibilities would probably tell us that this is decent, honest labor.

The details that emerged from the tragedy showed that it really wasn’t. Workers in the factory were paid way below the minimum wage, and it was discovered that the company “has engaged, and is engaging, the services of an illegal subcontractor.” There were worse things to be had in this little enclave of honest labor: few exits, barred windows, no fire safety training among workers.

The price to all of this – for each of the 72 lives who perished on that day – is a tad more lurid than what we can imagine: an honest payday, and an honest bit of assistance.

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I think that the great irony of labor is that it’s a lot like tsinelas itself: it’s cheap. So cheap that the injustices and tragedies surrounding it are often overlooked, and often forgotten. In a world full of “you are not your job” and “soul-searching,” it’s easy to forget the travails and trials of an ordinary worker making an honest living. And while fires and other disasters will always be a part of the daily life of an office worker, the risk is nowhere as near – and nowhere as cheap – as that of factory workers.

Occupational safety and workers’ rights are not strange and alien concepts to us, but they wouldn’t have happened if people didn’t suffer and perish first. Fire drills, fire extinguishers, and safety standards were in great part a result of the reforms introduced after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Pure food laws and safety inspections were in great part a result of the American public being revolted by Upton Sinclair’s testimonies in “The Jungle.” But only after the poignant – depressing, and sometimes disgusting – stories were told did people think twice about their blouses, or their tins of potted meat. Otherwise, things would have been left to silence.

No one wanted the Kentex tragedy to happen, that much we know. But Kentex wasn’t a tragedy just because it burned down, and 72 lives were lost in the blaze. Kentex was a tragedy because of all the things that led to it: occupational hazards, the low wages, the violation of labor laws, the conditions inside the factory. It took a spark to set that entire structure ablaze and expose the crises within.

It makes it even cheaper, come to think of it.

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There are hazards more dangerous than chemicals and errant sparks. It’s our ability to forget. The greatest moral hazard would be to consign Kentex to a bin of bad memories, while hundreds of thousands of factory workers in the Philippines continue to suffer. Now would be a time for policy to sharpen its teeth: that factory owners should adhere to certain occupational safety and wage standards, or lose their business.

Now would be a time for us to continue remembering: that if this happened once, it can happen again. We need to sensitize ourselves to the horrors that the common worker endures and support worthy causes against contractual labor and unsafe working conditions.

We need to imagine these stories somewhat, and perhaps even write them.

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I don’t think they ever made glass slippers in Kentex, but it’s a sobering thing to fill in the gaps with one’s hyperactive imagination. Nightmare-inducing, even: seventy-two people would all have ambled over each other to reach a window in the hope for escape, only to realize that it’s been shut with iron bars and chicken wire. They would have all trampled each other looking for that exit, only to see it locked or worse, welded shut by the heat.

They would have all struggled for air, only for the fumes of burning rubber and chemicals to coat their lungs and choke them to death before the heat consumes their remains. Rescuers spoke of unidentifiable remains: charred skulls, burned clothing, or the sheer horrifying thought that they’ve become one with the very slippers on their feet. The very slippers they made one midnight.

That’s one Cinderella story that we should never, ever forget.

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