IT is one of the more discouraging parts of the routine here in the Philippines that the country cannot get through its most important holiday (Christmas actually begins around the first of September here) without suffering from one or more horrific tragedies. If it’s not a natural disaster such as one of the country’s frequent destructive tropical storms, it’s a massive fire with casualties numbered in the dozens.
On Friday, the NCCC Mall in Davao City went up in flames shortly before 10 am, when it would have opened to the public. The fire began on the third level of the four-story mall, in an area where furniture, dry goods, and housewares – in other words, mainly cheap flammable crap imported either from China or from the sketchy beehive of manufacturers of cheap flammable crap around Metro Manila – and spread rapidly, trapping and ultimately killing 37 people, all of them workers at a call center located on the mall’s fourth floor.
The tragedy momentarily attracted media coverage here because Davao is the personal fiefdom of President Rodrigo Duterte, who was mayor of Mindanao’s largest city for 27 years, and installed his daughter and son as mayor and vice-mayor, respectively, upon his election to the presidency. The most important part of the story of the mall fire, apparently, was the fact that Duterte broke into tears upon meeting the families of the missing people and informing them that there was no chance anyone who didn’t make it out of the building could have survived.
But to be fair to Duterte on a personal level, disasters do seem to bring out his human side; unlike his elitist and misanthropic predecessor, he is neither ungenerous nor self-conscious with his sympathies for the victims of tragedies. But the other facts of the case – the destruction of the city’s second-largest business establishment, a fire that should not have happened and certainly should not have been as bad as it was, and the extremely problematic fact that the business that suffered the worst loss was an American-owned BPO office – are not quite so appealing as media fodder, and the story had dropped off the local news radar by midday Sunday.
That is, unfortunately, probably not surprising for a country where major industrial fires happen a couple of times a year, and where a neighborhood of squatter shanties goes up in flames almost every day. That Filipinos are so inured to disasters like this is the result of an almost willful disregard for standards when it comes to buildings and matters of occupational health and safety, despite the existence of enough regulations to fill a book big enough to stun an ox. As a former mayor and now as president, Duterte, whatever grace he has in commiserating with his people, deserves some of the blame for that dangerous attitude.
Swamp of corruption
Fire safety standards are nominally managed by the Bureau of Fire Protection, a national-level agency, but one that in practice devolves a lot of authority on local departments organized at the level of cities or municipalities. Among business owners in the Philippines, the BFP is considered one of the most notoriously corrupt agencies anyone has the misfortune to have to deal with. Although there are maybe local exceptions, it is considered standard practice that to obtain the necessary BFP permit, one will be obliged to purchase sprinkler systems or fire extinguishers from BFP personnel or their designated suppliers. But on the other hand, for the cost-conscious businessman, that is often the limit of BFP’s interest in conducting inspections and actually ascertaining if an establishment is up to code or not. Even the equipment purchased under compulsion may not be adequate or appropriate; as long as one is willing to pay the ticket, he gets the permit.
And since fire inspection clearances are connected to other construction permits, which fall completely under the purview of the local government, the BFP racket requires the cooperation – connivance would be a better word – of the mayor’s office, which can be assumed to be compensated for its indulgence.
As long as nothing blows up, everything’s fine. And if it does go up in flames, the business will invariably be found liable – although in actual fact, accurately in most cases, since the corruption encourages this sort of behavior – for having made alterations or engaged in unsafe activities contrary to the building permits. Fines will be levied, compensation will be paid to the victims’ families, and the relevant officials will huff and puff about yanking the afflicted firm’s business license (noise that always seems to stop if it’s muffled by enough cash). But after a relatively short time, everyone will quietly get back to business as usual.
Any protest that Duterte was somehow above all this as mayor is rather starkly refuted by the four stories of smoldering wreckage now gracing one of the main thoroughfares of his hometown. The swamp of dangerous corruption is part of the cultural ecosystem, much bigger than even his outsized personality and reputation can contend with. And the fact that Davao, though not an unsuccessful place by any means, is otherwise not usually the first place on most foreign investors’ lists of potential landing places suggests that it doesn’t impress as one that is fundamentally different from the rest of the Philippines.
The biggest victim of the mall fire was Research Now SSI, a market research firm with headquarters in Texas and Connecticut. The company is the product of a merger completed only this past October; the Davao office was originally an SSI location, and employed a total of about 500 people.
The explosive growth of both the BPO and shopping mall sectors in the Philippines has led to a productive sort of symbiosis. BPO firms are of course drawn to the country because of the favorable environment: A population of youthful workers, most of whom are aware that English is a language; government investment agencies eager to dole out incentives to locators; and labor laws that, once a business is established, largely let the firm’s own conscience dictate matters such as compensation and working conditions. Malls offer good locations and facilities, and allow firms to set up relatively quickly. Mall owners, faced with intense competition, are only too happy to have large cuts of leasable space, particularly if it’s space that’s less than ideal for retail, soaked up by long-term BPO tenants, who bring with them large numbers of small-cap but reliable customers in the form of staff.
The fire in Davao, especially because it was as deadly as it was, will almost certainly put this happily budding relationship between malls and BPOs in jeopardy. Even if there was nothing but a tragic accident involved in the Davao fire – which seems likely to be the case, as the fire is a serious setback to NCCC’s plans, announced last month, to undergo a major renovation – the corrupted nature of the permit processes means that any certification of a prospective location’s safety ought to be considered unreliable.
One could hope that potentially driving away BPO business might encourage the government to take proactive steps to enforce a culture of safety, because nothing else has so far. Derailing a long-running gravy train for apparatchiks and local potentates, however, is risky business even for someone of Durterte’s advertised caliber; after all, he is a hereditary product of the same culture. Safer, most likely to simply handle this tragedy as such tragedies usually are handled: Make some angry noises, hand out a few fines, and let the naturally short Filipino attention span move on to something else. If that bothers you, just make sure you know how to get to an exit any time you go somewhere.