Labour Department considers harsher penalties for contractors flouting safety rules amid spate of workplace deaths
Eleven workers have died at construction sites in first four months of this year, compared to 18 for whole of last year
The Labour Department will discuss with justice officials the possibility of beefing up penalties for contractors who flout construction safety rules, Commissioner for Labour Carlson Chan Ka-shun said in the wake of a spate of deaths this year.
Chan said that the 11 fatalities at construction sites across the city in the first four months of this year had “sounded the alarm bell”, compared with the total of 18 deaths for the whole of last year.
Last month, two workers were killed and three others injured at the sea-based construction site of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. The platform they were dismantling underneath a viaduct outside Tai O suddenly collapsed. The workers were hooked on with harnesses and fell into the sea along with the platform.
“We will discuss with the Department of Justice to see if there is a need to strengthen [the penalties] and, if so, by how much,” Chan said on a TVB talk show.
“If all of society and the Legislative Council think that beefing up the punishment will bring about better deterrence, we are definitely happy to study the matter.”
Under Hong Kong law, the commissioner for labour has the power to issue improvement notices and suspension notices against contractors. Failure to comply with the notices constitutes an offence punishable by a fine of HK$200,000 and HK$500,000 respectively and imprisonment of up to 12 months.
Since construction of the bridge began in 2011, a total of 10 workers have died and more than 600 have been injured while at work, in a total of 275 incidents.
But Chan stressed that his department had already conducted more than 1,380 inspections on the bridge since 2011. It has slapped a total of 51 suspension notices on contractors working on the bridge.
“We won’t say that the contractors have turned a blind eye [to the warnings]. Every time we issue a suspension notice, that [creates] a huge impact on the contractors,” he said. “Take the bridge as an example – we have issued 51 suspensions in total. Some notices demand suspension for as long as three months.”
He stressed the department would beef up inspections at construction sites across the city, saying that usually 130,000 inspections are conducted each year. The department laid 2,600 charges against contractors last year, he added.
Chan Kam-hong, chief executive of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, said Hong Kong can learn from Britain and strengthen the maximum punishment to two years in prison, together with an unlimited fine.
“The punishment must be significantly enhanced. In the UK, the fine is unlimited and is determined by the court,” he said. “The price for contractors to pay in cases of construction accidents is just too low at present.”
He also hit out at the labour commissioner’s remarks that the government would look into harsher penalties if society agreed with it, saying: “The government should be able to determine whether there is such a need. [Chan] should not be putting the responsibility on the public’s shoulder.”