MANILA - The Philippines said on Tuesday it would investigate whether safety regulations were ignored at an office where a fire killed 37 call center employees, and vowed to impose sanctions if firms had not met standards.
The remains of 37 employees of the US-based Research Now SSI killed by Saturday's fire in Davao City have been recovered and a criminal investigation will be launched by the Justice Department.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said he had instructed the government's workplace health and safety agency and the Labor Ministry's regional office in Davao, President Rodrigo Duterte's hometown, to investigate if there were lapses in safety standards.
The fire broke out at a furniture store on the third level of the 14-year-old New City Commercial Center and quickly engulfed an outsourcing business on the upper floor, based on an initial report from the city government.
"We will immediately look into possible violations of some safety and health standards," Bello told Reuters.
"We may not issue any clearance to operate," he said when asked to clarify sanctions that could be imposed on the mall or call center management if culpable.
Research Now SSI has confirmed 37 of its 500 employees in its Davao call center were "lost" in the fire.
"We cannot comment on what is an ongoing investigation," said Barbara Palmer, company senior vice president for global marketing, in an email in response to a Reuters query on Tuesday about safety protocols at the company's Davao office.
On Sunday the firm said in a statement it was helping to support funeral arrangements and would create a fund for contributions for victims' families.
The fire is a setback for the Philippines' $23 billion business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, which is an economic lifeline in the country of more than 100 million. The sector employs about 1.15 million people, with jobs forecast to grow to 1.8 million by 2025.
Along with remittances from overseas workers, BPO revenues are a major earner of foreign exchange for the country, driving what is one of Asia's fastest-growing economies.
The BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) has expressed concern about postings on social media that said the building was made of sub-standard materials, had locked its fire exits, and had not held fire drills. It was not possible to immediately check the accuracy of the postings.
BIEN said the government should look into every BPO firm's compliance with occupational health and safety standards.
"Justice must be served to the victims and those accountable must be penalized so as to avoid future workplace deaths," BIEN said in a statement.
On Monday night, Duterte told relatives of victims that the National Bureau of Investigation, police and fire protection bureau would get to the bottom of the disaster.
"The truth will come out," he said.
Research Now SSI has offices in Texas, California, New York and Toronto and more than 3,500 market research, consulting, media, healthcare and corporate clients.
The Call Centre Association of the Philippines (CCAP) said it was waiting for a full report from Research Now SSI, but saw no problem with its members meeting workplace safety standards.
"We always comply with government safety regulations because our priority is the welfare of all our employees," CCAP President Jojo Uligan told Reuters.
But the Associated Labour Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP) said safety standards were not being adhered to and the labour department and companies were not living up to their responsibilities to enforce and comply.
"This deaths-causing fire could have been minimized to the barest damage to property," ALU-TUCP spokesman Alan Tanjusay said.