Contractors 'avoiding responsibility' over deaths of construction workers

Justice officials urge tougher laws and call on judges to pierce corporate veil and sentence individuals at fault when labourers are killed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 5:50am

It's time Hong Kong placed criminal liability for work-site deaths squarely on the shoulders of individuals, justice officials say.

Contractors are hiding behind a "corporate veil" to avoid taking responsibility for the human cost of the city's breakneck-paced building works, they say.

Nearly 500 workers have died in industrial accidents in the past 25 years - an average of 20 a year, the Sunday Morning Post found after examining Labour Department statistics.

But no one has been imprisoned in connection with any of the deaths, despite legal changes in 1989 that opened the way for the prosecution and possible imprisonment of individuals over such accidents. Low fines imposed by courts and inadequate compensation awards are also believed to have heaped further misery on grieving families.

"If I drive my car in a reckless and dangerous manner and kill someone, I go to jail. So why doesn't the same principle apply to the same behaviour on a work site?" a senior legal source asked.

Chan Kam-hong, chairman of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, said: "No one has ever been jailed. The law has lost its ability to deter."

In 1989, the city amended the 1955 Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance to allow for the criminal prosecution of offenders. But justice officials say the law is inadequate.

"There is a tendency for building contractors to shield [themselves] behind the corporate veil and diffuse responsibility within the corporate structure and thereby make it difficult for authorities to drive home criminal liability to the individuals responsible for workplace safety," said a Department of Justice spokesman. "The [department's] prosecutions division has expressed concern about the use of corporate structures and the system of subcontracting to avoid criminal liability. Even when corporations are prosecuted, the fines imposed are low due to the current sentencing regime. The law should be amended to ensure that an individual person is made responsible and accountable for workplace safety," he said.

Existing laws require employers to ensure the health and safety of all their workers. Offenders can be jailed for up to a year and face a HK$500,000 fine.

Chan said judges never impose jail terms, as they do not understand the severity of such accidents. "The fines slapped on contractors simply do not match the extent to which employers have ignored safety procedures."

Construction workers and unions have voiced growing fears about work-site safety as the city prepares to build as many as 75,000 public rental flats in the next five years. Chan said he feared an increase in work-site accidents and deaths as a result. He said contractors had told him many times that developers often laid down "unreasonable time frames" for finishing work.

The Labour Department said it would step up the monitoring of safety at "mega infrastructure projects" by undertaking inspections more frequently.

Additional reporting by Ada Lee