Hong Kong regulator must come down hard on firms that put profit before worker safety
Paul Yip calls for heavier penalties for companies that flout safety rules, after a string of accidents on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge project that has left 10 people dead
Ten people have now died during the construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. In the latest accident involving five workers, safety rules appear to have been breached with harnesses hooked to the working platform rather than an independent anchor.
The lack of a strong response from the community and government is disturbing. Is Hong Kong compromising safety and putting profit ahead of human life? Hong Kong’s laws and enforcement should measure up to the best. If we can tolerate such cracks in our system, it won’t take long for the city to start to crumble.
Hong Kong’s record on construction fatalities is not good by international standards. On average, there are some 180 occupational fatalities annually, a rate of 0.06 per 1,000 employees. In the state of Victoria in Australia, for example, that figure is 20 deaths, a rate of 0.01 per 1,000 employees.
Any company that fails to comply with safety standards should be severely punished. We cannot allow construction companies to cut corners to save money and meet deadlines at the expense of people’s lives.
Current penalties have little effect, with the maximum of up to a year in prison and a HK$500,000 fine. Most companies have been fined HK$100,000 or less. Compared with the billions companies make from a project, it is nothing. Furthermore, the pain of the family of the deceased cannot be ignored.
The only way to make companies comply is by imposing large financial penalties, and suspending the work, which could be even more costly. The labour department cannot be a toothless regulator.
There are many excellent international examples where holistic safety plans have been implemented to create a safe and profitable working environment.
Hong Kong needs a strong and committed leadership that holds themselves and others to account for any incident. Education and training should be available to employees, businesses and contractors to ensure workplace safety. Continuous monitoring, auditing and reviews are a must.
The primary focus of successful businesses has moved from making more profit to creating a safe and healthy environment for everyone in the community (including workers). We need a culture of accountability and ownership to reduce the number of accidents. In this aspect, Hong Kong is falling behind.
Putting profit and efficiency above people’s lives doesn’t make us a caring society. It is time to be more responsive and accountable when such tragedies occur.
Paul Yip is chair professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong