DAVAO CITY, Philippines — Findings of an initial investigation report conducted by labor groups revealed a web of loopholes that caused the tragic NCCC Mall fire incident in December 2017.
The findings were a result of a probe initiated by the BPO Independent Employees Network (BIEN), Nonoy Librado Development Foundation Inc. (NLDFI), Church-Labor Solidarity Network (CLSN) and the Kilusang Mayo Uno – Southern Mindanao Region (KMU-SMR).
The release of its result came ahead of an official intergovernmental agencies’ probe, led by the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), that said it was still gathering volumes of documents from the local BFP office.
The independent probe based its findings from accounts of the witnesses, survivors, and the families of the victims who were able to contact their loved ones before their death, said Jupiter Delda, BIEN public information officer.
About 10 families of the 38 victims were interviewed, said Delda.
The probe team also gathered information from media reports, independent research, and statements from authorities.
Delda read before the media the results of the initial investigation they conducted between December 29, 2017 and January 4 this year.
Here are their five major findings:
SSI ‘failed’ to ensure employees’ safety
According to the investigation, Research Now Survey Sampling International (RN SSI) failed to ensure safety measures for their 700 workers based in their office inside NCCC Mall, 37 of which perished during the fire.
SSI employees interviewed by BIEN said that the fire drill conducted at their office was only limited to employees under the company’s human resources and administration departments. Thus, no call center agents were able to participate in any fire drill.
Moreover, as employees who survived the fire added that the fire alarms and emergency lighting towards exits of the mall and RN SSI were not working when the fire broke out.
Like the RN SSI survivors, NCCC employees interviewed said that the emergency alarm systems were not also functioning.
They insisted that the design of the emergency exits did not even serve as a fire escape but exits for smoke and fire, like a chimney as survivors described. Some of them were able to reach the fire exit but thick black smoke came out from exit doors and had to run back to the lobby where they found their way out.
BIEN also found out that the fire system of the NCCC Mall and RN SSI were not connected.
For them, the mall operator violated rules as commercial and industrial buildings should have measures that would ensure the safety of their people in case of emergency.
Third, there was an “undeniable incompetence” of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) as they granted NCCC and SSI a Fire Safety Inspection Certificate despite its evident lapses.
Some family members who witnessed the rescue operations attested to the negligence of the firefighters who were on the ground at the time.
Jimmy Quimsing, the father of Benedict Quimsing, one of the 38 victims of the fire, insisted that the firefighters did not use any fire suits during the operation in a video interview by KMU-SMR.
“When I was there, I didn’t see them with fire suits. I don’t know what they did to it. They didn’t really use any fire suit upon rescue,” Quimsing exclaimed.
Another father, in an interview, told BIEN, noticed that one of the fire trucks was not being used and hurriedly asked one of the officials about it but was only told,
“That is not my job. I have no authority over that,” said the officer as the father recounted what happened.
In response, the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) spokesperson, Fire Senior Supt. Jerome Candido confirmed in a statement released in yesterday’s press conference, said that they would enlist the BFP personnel accountable on the said incident. These names, however, are yet to be disclosed in public.
Davao City issued permits
Fourth, the Local Government Unit (LGU) issued permits last April 2017 even if the building company did not meet the safety standards in the previous years.
The Fire Safety Inspection Certificate (FALAR) is a pre-requisite to grants of permits and licenses by local governments or other government agencies. This contains the fire safety measures based on the implementing rules and regulations of the fire code.
Yet, it was granted to the NCCC mall when survivors experiences revealed otherwise.
Fifth, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has inspected the NCCC Mall in 2015 but found non-compliance with safety standards. DOLE then issued recommendations for a corrective measure to be taken. However, there was no follow-up. Instead, the company only submitted a compliance report.
The DOLE is the sole Department that can permit the issuance of Notice of Results (NR) which contains on-site inspection assessment report on Occupational Safety and Health Standards (OSHS) of a company, which RN SSI was granted to last year.
This recent RN SSI NR, however, is yet to be given by the DOLE before the public.
“It is unfortunate that the loose implementation on safety standards of these building companies, like the NCCC has cost 38 lives. If the building in 2015 has failed to comply with the safety measure requirements, why were they given a permit to operate until 2017? They could have saved them back then,” said Delda.
The Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) should also be held accountable in the said fire because of the right violations within eco-zones, added the fact-finding team.
The NCCC has been accredited by PEZA as an (Information Technology – Special Economic Zone) IT-SEZ as it houses business process outsourcing (BPO) company, the RN SSI.
It is under PEZA, where accredited special economic zones (SEZs) makes compliance certificates that involve labor and OSH standards be easily waived as it overrides the compliance requirement process.
Thus, companies and BPO firms continue operation with lax supervision from local authorities or LGU and government agencies like DOLE.
As stated in the Section 5 of Fire Protection under Rule XII or Defense, Security and Firefighting Forces of PEZA, it has its chapter as a special zone not controlled by local governments, where they issue fire safety permits and has their fire fighting units.
“What happened here in NCCC Davao should not be treated as an isolated case as this already happened before in Cavite and Valenzuela not long ago. Too much favor is given to business owners, at the cost of the rights and worse, the lives of workers,” said Carlo Anthony Olalo, KMU secretary-general.
The group here was referring to two tragic fires, under the same findings of negligence as that of the NCCC Mall blaze.
The first was the House Technologies Industries (HTI) Fire in General Trias, Cavite last February which left two dead and left hundreds injured.
The other, was the May 2015 Kentex Manufactoring Factory Fire in Valenzuela that killed 74 people.
Both companies, Olalo emphasized, are SEZ-accredited of PEZA.
The fact-finding team deemed that it is clear that the RN SSI and NCCC have skirted the OSHS guidelines under the loose policies of PEZA, which resulted in the entrapment of 38 workers during the December 23 fire.
The Local Government and BFP should be held accountable, as explained in their earlier findings, for issuing safety permits despite evident lapses and poor response to the incident, the team said.
Aside from presenting the final report before the families, RN SSI, NCCC and authorizing bodies like the LGU, DOLE, BFP, among others, the joint team said it sees the importance of bringing the case to Senate and Congress for further inquiry.
“We conducted this is to speed up the process of the case as we pressure the authorities for a thorough investigation. This will also serve as evidence to be submitted to congress and senate for inquiry and to add weight to who will be held accountable,” said Emma Ricaforte, the NLDF head.
To date, the victims’ families are receiving aid from the local government and from the Office of the President to cover expenses for funeral services and burial.
In a separate statement, SSI said it is preparing to release an additional fund worth over US$115,000. The amount is intended for the families of the victims.
“Our Davao employees have shown incredible resilience and strength in the wake of the tragedy. We are committed to helping sustain them as members of our global company and as part of the Research Now SSI family,” said Gary S. Laben, CEO of Research Now SSI.
Progressive groups, together with the fact-finding body and families of the victims, said no amount can equate to the shattered dreams and aching hearts of the mourning families and the survivors.
“They seek justice over the death of the 38 lost lives,” they said .
The NDLFI emphasized that 26 out of the 38 victims we re women at their 20’s and we re mostly breadwinners in the family.
“At 20’s, they are at the stage of their prime life where they could still explore the depths of their potentials and are gear towards a better future. But the fire took their right to life. That is why, we cannot just let these companies, the NCCC, the SSI, the DOLE, BFP or LGU and others escape and say they did their best that easy,” said Ricaforte.
Apart from the 38 lives engulfed by the fire, there are still about a thousand more employees of NCCC, and RN SSI affected.
The NCCC Management had already committed to the DOLE that their 616 regular mall employees will continue to receive salaries and will be absorbed in other operations. At the mean time, the deployment report they have submitted is still being validated by the DOLE.
While, the NCCC and Bmirck Cooperative where 192 agency-hired employees are registered are left in limbo, as discussions for possible deployments to other malls in the city transpires.
The SSI management, on the other hand, has committed that all their employees will be paid a salary up to December 31, 2017, and have filed a proposal for 60-day payment of the workers before the SSI head based in the United States, as they resume their operations in two months.
Joining the campaign are the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, Church People Workers Solidarity, Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research, and Gabriela. On social media, they also launched a jumpstart campaign called #safeworkplacesnow.
The campaign calls for the safer workplace as they push for policy change concerning the OSH to be changed, such as the immediate passage of the OSH Bill under the Senate Bill 1317 and House Bill 64.
“Stricter implementation of OSH must be upheld. Senate Bill 1317 and House Bill 64 will end the impunity on workplace deaths as mandatory government inspection, greater penalty and criminalization of such incidents,” said Olalo.
As of the moment, this joint body is yet to decide when to resume their investigation. (davaotoday.com)