August 1 was a black day for workers on a construction site in Sha Tin. In the pre-dawn heat of a summer's day, two workers for Sino Wealth Engineering descended through a manhole into the cramped confines of a sewer beneath a children's playground. Wong Keung and Cheung Shue-hung were to install water plugs and pumps before repairs to the underground system could begin. Colleagues were nearby but by the time they realised there was a problem, it was too late. The men were reported missing within an hour and, after a frantic three-hour search, police were called by the foreman. The two workers lost their lives that day, overcome by fumes in the sewer. Three companies now face lawsuits for allegedly failing to provide a safe working environment, and the government has come in for harsh criticism over lax outsourcing regulations and high risks faced by workers. As one of the thousands of industrial accidents that took place in Hong Kong each year, the case might have faded from public view if not for the fact that the workers were hired by a subcontractor not on the government's list. The incident sparked a review of safety management by the Drainage Services Department, which insisted in a conference days after the tragedy that it had done its best in overseeing the works. The department pointed the finger at the main contractor, Shun Yuen Construction, saying it failed to observe the terms of the contract. Two months after that tragedy in Sha Tin, the department has imposed stricter controls on subcontracting, limiting its future contracts for confined space operation to just one layer. Previously there was no such restriction. The deaths of the Sha Tin workers have shed light on a worrying trend to employ several layers of subcontractors on building projects throughout Hong Kong, sometimes leading to relaxed safety regulations as small-time subcontractors place an emphasis on finishing a job quickly and at the cheapest possible cost. Secretary for the Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union Fung Kin-cho said it was not uncommon in the construction industry for jobs to be contracted out through three or four layers. 'When the market thrives and jobs come in abundance, some middle-class contractors want to contract out their jobs,' Mr Fung said. 'They take a portion of the contract sum and leave the works and responsibility to someone else. It's easy money.' In the manhole accident in Sha Tin, the men who died were asked by Shui Wing - the fourth-tier contractor - to repair the drains in a sewer some 400 metres away from the authorised site, apparently without proper safety gear. Shui Wing was not on the approved subcontractors' list in the department's contract with Shun Yuen, and the government was not notified of the works. John Battersby, a veteran engineer and the group managing director of international project management consultant BK Asia Pacific, said the problem went beyond subcontracting. 'Many people have misunderstood the nature of subcontracting,' he said. 'The industry cannot operate without subcontractors because no companies can have all the different trades and all the expertise you need to do the job. 'Where things go wrong is that there are layers of subcontracting that are unnecessary, sometimes you go down one layer and that's it. The problem comes when subcontracting is done for the sake of it.' Mr Battersby is also the chairman of the Asia Pacific branch of Lighthouse Club, a global charity organisation made up of professionals and directors within the building and civil engineering industry. The club offers financial help to victims of industrial accidents, last year paying out HK$1.4 million to 25 beneficiaries. 'We provide the money as long as there's a need, we don't put a cap on it, our members are all within the industry so sometimes we get referrals from their companies,' said Mr Battersby. Among the beneficiaries were the widows of the deceased workers in the manhole accident - Lighthouse Club is offering a monthly subsidy of HK$5,000 to each family. Leung Tung-mui, the widow of Wong Keung, lives in Tseung Kwan O with her four children, aged 17 to 21. The two youngest are still in Form Five. 'Almost three months have passed but it seems like the clock has stopped in my world,' she said. 'I still can't sleep most of the nights and in day time, I keep myself busy with mechanical chores, but my soul is some place else.' Shun Yuen, the main contractor at the Sha Tin site, has agreed to pay wages to the two families until they are awarded compensation, if any, by a court. Although confined space operation is now the public works task that is restricted to one layer of subcontracting, the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau said it was consulting other works departments to identify high-risk construction activities where it believed a one-layer cap approach would improve safety. For some high-risk tasks, such as plastering and works that require operating from a height, the government limits the subcontracting to two levels. Unionists welcomed the move to look at layering, saying it would help improve work quality and the accident rate, but the chief executive of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, Chan Kam-hong, said the government would have to improve safety management skills to make the policy effective. 'What if the main contractor, like Shun Yuen in the manhole accident, did not tell the government about how many subcontractors they have? How are they going to monitor?' asked Mr Chan. Technical secretary of the Drainage Services Department, Robin Lee Kui-biu, said main contractors were required to declare their subcontractors and the work they were responsible for. 'If we hear something different from what they have claimed, we will dispatch our staff to do a site inspection. If we find them to be lying, they will be in big trouble because it is fraud,' he said. Meanwhile, the department has urged its officers to be on heightened alert for breaches of the regulations and to increase site inspections, but Mr Lee admitted there were obstacles. 'Mobility of the site workers is high and sometimes even if you ask them, they may not be able to tell you which level of subcontractor their direct employer is.' The department last month appointed an independent safety consultant to review the safety management system and the findings are expected to be available by the end of the year. The bureau said the review would be used by other departments as reference. However, a limit on subcontracting layers in the private sector is out of the question due to the laissez-faire nature of Hong Kong's building and maintenance industries and related trades. According to Labour Department figures, the number of construction accidents has been sliding in the past few years to 3,548 in 2005, compared with 3,833 in 2004. But the portion taken up by small-scale repair, maintenance and decorating works has risen from 37.9 per cent in 2004 to 42.5 per cent last year. For every five of the industrial accidents last year, four came from the private sector. There were 558 accidents, or 21.9 per cent, in the public construction sites, compared with 2,990 in the private sector. In 2004 there were 3,029 private accidents and 804 public ones. 'The problem lies with the private sector,' said Permanent Secretary for Economic Development and Labour Matthew Cheung Kin-chung. 'Over one-third of the accidents in the private sector are associated with small-scale renovation and maintenance works done by what we called brothers' co-op or one-man companies. We have moved from a positional face-to-face battle to guerilla warfare.' These small-time operators take up contracts, ranging from domestic decoration to installation of sewage pipes, often forming the lowest hierarchy in the construction business, and are the most easily exploited in outsourced contracts. 'Nearly half of the repair and decoration works in Chinese restaurants still go as far as three layers, with the third layer always covered by these brothers' co-ops,' said Mr Fung of the union. 'But you can't regulate the private sector, otherwise you're squeezing them out of business.' To boost the quality of subcontractors, the bureau in 2003 encouraged small companies to subscribe to a scheme of accredited subcontractors, in which those who qualify will be awarded an accreditation similar to the ISO. The scheme is meant to encourage large contractors to use qualified subcontractors when they need backup. 'A lot of the accidents on small sites come down to competition. People don't like spending money on buildings that doesn't affect them directly, even for small jobs like decoration for individual premises. If you look for the cheapest tender prices, they always end up with somebody who would take the least care,' said Mr Battersby. Mr Lee gave the example of a neighbour who hired two sewage workers to fix pipes on a building. 'They built a temporary platform outside the flat with bamboo sticks, but one side was placed on top of a plastic tube protruding from my premises, which obviously cannot hold the weight of two full-grown adults,' he said. The two workers built another properly secured platform later, but that's not always the case. 'They chose the fast track so they can perhaps complete one more job for the day and earn a few extra dollars. People always take the chance assuming that they won't be the unlucky one.' The Labour Department has yet to decide whether to prosecute Shun Yuen and the subcontractor, but labour rights activist Chan Kam-hong said even if they were convicted, the cost would be too little compared with the dangers workers faced. 'Not one single employer has been jailed so far for failing to provide their workers with a safe working environment, and despite the fact they're liable to a maximum fine of HK$200,000, most are fined only around HK$10,000.' Mr Battersby said: 'To prove an employer is criminally negligent you've got to prove that they knew it was unsafe and they knew an accident could happen, and that's not easy.' In 2003, the Labour Department implemented the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance to strengthen liabilities that subcontractors, instead of just the main contractor, should shoulder. But Matthew Cheung said that in the end it was the workers who needed to ensure their own work safety. 'The government can introduce legislation, propagate on work safety and penalise unscrupulous employers, but we can't make workers follow our rules - work safety is everyone's responsibility.'