In this photo provided by Special Assistant to the President Christopher Bong Go, a fire rages at NCCC shopping mall in Davao city, the hometown of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017 in southern Philippines. The fire which still raging for hours now have trapped an undetermined number of people, fire officials said. Christopher Bong Go, Special Assistant to the President via AP

Hero emerges in Davao city NCCC Mall blaze
(The Philippine Star) - December 27, 2017 - 4:00pm

DAVAO CITY, Philippines — The 38th casualty in the NCCC Mall fire here over the weekend turned out to be a heroic safety officer who managed to rescue call center agents before he himself died.

Based on information they gathered, NCCC Mall spokesperson Thea Padua yesterday said Melvin Gaa brought down several SSI employees from the fourth floor to the ground floor and was already seen to have exited safely from the building. “But instead of remaining downstairs, he went upstairs again to try to save more people,” Padua said.

Padua said Gaa was a member of the NCCC Emergency Action Team (NEAT) which, along with the mall’s emergency fire brigade, helped bring 83 surviving SSI employees and an estimated 700 mall personnel and visitors to safety while the fire was raging.

Gaa was identified by his wife Rosela Tuesday night as one of 36 persons recovered by the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) on Monday night near the lobby of the SSI offices at the mall’s fourth floor.

A charred body, meanwhile, remains unidentified as of press time yesterday.

“We offer his family our sympathies and recognize with the deepest gratitude Melvin’s sacrifice,” Padua said.

Presidential daughter and Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio also confirmed Gaa’s death in the Dec. 23 mall fire.

Based on the description of Gaa’s position when his remains were found, “it would seem that he was really trying hard to help the other agents,” Carpio said. 

Heads must roll

Amid deaths of their colleagues from SSI, the BPO (business process outsourcing) Industry Employees Network (BIEN) pushed yesterday for the criminalization of occupational safety and health standards (OSHS) violations.

BIEN spokesman Mylene Cabalona said they support Senate Bill 1317 imposing criminal and higher monetary penalties against employers who violate OSHS.

“As the case of SSI workers shows, work in the so-called sunshine industry can be deadly; policy changes are therefore necessary and justice must be served immediately to avoid more deaths of workers,” Cabalona said.

BIEN earlier demanded  a thorough and independent investigation of the incident, saying the mall fire was a massacre of working people who strive hard to earn a living.

“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.

She noted that  many BPO companies are in shopping malls and commercial buildings whose operating hours are in the daytime, different from the graveyard operations of BPO firms.

“In such cases, we wonder if BPO workers still have access to fire exits and other safety facilities of these buildings” Cabalona said.         

Another group of BPO workers – the Secured and Healthy Initiative Enabling Labor Defense ( I-SHIELD) – called for stronger labor enforcement and inspection.

“Accidents are not acts of Divine Providence that can be dismissed as unavoidable. Instead, accidents are the result of unsafe acts and therefore preventable by strict enforcement of occupational safety and health and labor standards,” I-SHIELD chair Rossie Hong said.

“Heads must roll and justice must be served for the needless deaths and injuries to our fellow BPO workers. While employers were scrimping on protection for workers and DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment) was sleeping on its job of enforcement, workers are dying in the workplace,” she added.

The Federation of Free Workers (FFW), on the other hand, offered the help of its trained safety officers to investigate the incident.

FFW said OSHS in workplaces is within the jurisdiction of the DOLE’s visitorial and enforcement power, but trade unions may be called to participate in investigation and enforcement of laws.

“The DOLE secretary needs to evaluate the performance of  all inspectors of DOLE in Davao City as they were given their individual targets at the end of October 2017 or until the end of the year. Deadlines were set by the regional offices of the DOLE to pave the way for the effective handling of cases generated from the inspections conducted,” the FFW noted. 

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ episcopal commission on the laity, also joined calls for justice for the fire victims.

“It is every unfortunate and we pray for the victims. There should be a thorough investigation on the safety of the place,” Pabillo said in an interview.

Wait for the investigation

President Duterte has assured families of the victims – mostly agents of the American call center SSI – that the truth would be known as to what caused the fire and who could be held liable.

The Department of Justice and the DOLE have likewise started their parallel investigations to determine liabilities for the deaths. – Mayen Jaymalin, Edu Punay

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