By Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines has barred a branch of an American call centre firm from expanding in the country following a pre-Christmas fire that killed dozens of its employees, a senior government official said on Wednesday.
Charito Plaza, director-general of the government's Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA), said the agency had suspended the operations of American firm Research Now SSI, as well as the shopping mall hosting it, for failing to meet certain safety requirements since 2013.
"They can operate again once they get a clearance from the Bureau of Fire and the local government," Plaza told Reuters in a text message.
The authority's suspension took effect on Dec. 29, but it only covers SSI's branch in the southern city of Davao where the Dec. 23 blaze broke out at a furniture and fabric store on a lower floor of the New City Commercial Center (NCCC) mall before engulfing the call centre's offices.
Thirty-eight people were killed.
SSI's office in Cebu, in the central Philippines, would not be affected as it has been complying with PEZA rules, Plaza said.
Investigators looking into fire said there were indications safety lapses may have contributed to the tragedy.
"Violations were more of the non-compliance of annual emergency drills to test the fire safety equipment, response and rescue capability, sprinklers and emergency exits," Plaza said.
SSI and the mall were registered with PEZA in 2008, as a business process outsourcing firm and an economic zone developer, respectively.
PEZA did not issue fire inspection and safety certificates to NCCC and SSI from 2013 to 2017, Plaza said.
But the companies were able to renew their business permits with the city government of Davao after passing fire safety inspection by the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), Plaza said.
How SSI and NCCC secured fire safety inspection certificates from the bureau is one of the things an inter-agency task force looking into the blaze is investigating.
Four fire officials being questioned over the blaze have been relieved of their duties after initial findings showed they have "some liabilities", a government investigator said on Monday.
Davao planning chief Ivan Cortez said the city gives business permits to companies after they get a fire safety and inspection certificate from the Bureau of Fire Protection.
"The agency focussing on fire is the Bureau of Fire. The local government will not release a permit without the approval of the Bureau of Fire. They are the last office. When they approve, that is the time we release the business permit," Cortez told Reuters.
NCCC could not immediately be reached for comment. An SSI official declined to comment and referred Reuters to its legal representative.
It was not clear yet how the suspension would affect SSI workers.
SSI employed 500 people at the Davao call centre and since the fire said it would not comment until after investigations were concluded.
NCCC has insisted it had met safety requirements.
(Reporting by Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)