'Heads must roll over Davao mall fire deaths' – labor groups

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Labor group Federation of Free Workers (FFW) offered to send its safety officers to investigate last week's deadly fire in a Davao City local mall to determine who should be accountable for the holiday tragedy.

At least 36 call center employees of Survey Sampling International (SSI) were trapped and killed inside the burning NCCC Mall. (IN PHOTOS: Duterte cries with kin of Davao mall fire victims)

FFW is one of the country's labor groups calling for heads to roll over the preventable deaths, saying it is just one example of government negligence in maintaining safety standards in the work place.

"Other than the owner and management people of NCC. We also need to make our public officers accountable. The Department of Labor and Employment, Bureau of Fire Protection, and local government officials have a lot of explaining in this fire which claimed lives and properties," said FFW President Sonny Matula on Tuesday, December 26.

The BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) called the incident a "massacre of working people who strive hard to earn a living." BIEN spokesperson Mylene Cabalona said it was clear that SSI failed to comply with safety standards.  

“One survivor has detailed on social media his experience during the fire. According to his narration, the fire exits were unpassable. Other individuals have attested also on social media that there were no fire drills conducted and no alarm. Indeed, there appears to be possible violations of safety standards which led to death of numerous workers,” she said.

The group mourned the deaths in a candle-lighting activity on Monday, December 25. “It is enraging and unacceptable that while these kinds of disaster have happened repeatedly in the past, occupational deaths happen again and again. And this is largely because no one is held accountable – there is impunity for violating workers’ rights and neglecting workers safety,” Cabalona said. 

Cabalona claimed that many BPO companies do not conduct emergency drills supposedly because managements do not want to stop operations. 

She also expressed BIEN's fear that justice will be slow too for the victims in Davao City. 

“We are very concerned that this might also be the fate of 37 SSI workers. And it is not unlikely that future occupational deaths will continue happen if nobody is penalized in this case,” Cabalona said.  

A labor welfare group, the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD), also joined calls for an immediate investigation into the incident. 

“We demand the immediate release of the investigation results and the government’s resolute action. Investigations become useless when no one is held accountable and safety laws remain weak," said IOHSAD advocacy officer Nadia De Leon.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III was urged to properly evaluate the performance of all DOLE inspectors in Davao City. The labor groups said the inspectors should have known that the mall didn't follow fire safety requirements if they conducted proper inspections.

"Occupational safety and health in workplaces is within the  jurisdiction of the DOLE's visitorial and enforcement power under Article 128 of the Labor Code," said Matula.

IOHSAD also advocated for new laws to impose stiffer penalties and jail time on companies that violate Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) standards. At least one bill is pending in Congress – Senate Bill 1317 or the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Standards Act.

“These senseless workplace deaths have to stop. In a span of almost 3 years, more than a hundred workers have died due to fires caused by employers’ non-compliance with fire safety and occupational health and safety laws,” De Leon said.

BIEN also supported stricter penalties for violations.

The Davao tragedy is the latest of the horrific fire tragedies that the country suffered in recent years. In 2015, a huge fire in  Kentex Manufacturing Incorporated in Valenzuela City killed up to 71 workers. In February 2017, a huge fire at the House Technology Industries (HTI) inside the Cavite Export Processing Zone also left many workers injured while many were still reportedly unaccounted for– Rappler.com