Unjust desserts

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 April, 1999, 12:00am

More than two years after the Garley Building fire, most of its victims have still received nothing to cover their horrific injuries. Employee compensation claims on behalf of those who worked in the Nathan Road firetrap have led to derisory payouts.

At fault are the inadequate provisions in an outdated ordinance governing the extent of an employer's liability towards staff injured in the course of their work.

The law, which is much softer than those now existing in several other Asian countries, was meant to be revised several years ago. But the Government has dragged its feet on the issue, with painful consequences for the Garley Building victims.

Now it has emerged that, perhaps because they have become so disillusioned with the inadequacies of the compensation process, many victims have not even bothered to lodge law suits against the contractors and other companies accused of legal liability for the blaze. These actions, which were the subject of a preliminary hearing yesterday, should offer another route for recovering much larger amounts in compensation.

But barely half of the families who lost relatives in the fire have so far lodged claims. Worse still, only two of the 80 people who were injured have initiated legal action.

Mr Justice Conrad Seagroatt appeared so concerned about this that he took the unusual step of convening the hearing in open court - it would normally have been expected to be held behind closed doors. He observed how victims such as those in the Lockerbie air disaster in Scotland were encouraged to come forward and lodge legal action by the existence of umbrella organisations to represent them and co-ordinate such claims.

That is a model which Hong Kong would be wise to emulate. Having dragged its feet over a new employee compensation law, the least the Government can do now is to try to ensure that they are aware of their entitlement to take legal action. At the moment, many seem either not to know this or have been put off by other shortcomings in the compensation process.

Huge sums are at stake. Some awards in other compensation cases have been in the region of $25 million, and this is widely expected to be the biggest personal injury case Hong Kong has seen.

Much more must be done to ensure that the victims of this terrible fire know their rights and are treated better than has been the case so far.