Strengthen laws to ensure safe work sites
About 500 people have lost their lives at work since 1999 yet only one custodial sentence – suspended at that – has been imposed
It is not easy to pin criminal responsibility for safety breaches that result in workplace accidents on an individual, even though official figures indicate that about 500 people have lost their lives at work since 1999. Often this is because of the complex corporate structures involved. Evidence of that is to be found in the number of people who have actually served a custodial sentence since punishment by imprisonment was added to labour laws nearly 30 years ago. The answer is none, although, just last month, one person was given a one-month sentence suspended for two years subject to good behaviour.
Industrial safety has been an abiding concern for many years as the city has launched massive rail, road, airport, bridge and housing projects. It was highlighted just over two months ago when the collapse of a work platform at the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge resulted in the deaths of two workers and injuries to three others, bringing the death toll on the Hong Kong side of the bridge to 10.
We do not know enough to draw any conclusions about that tragedy. If past experience is a guide, it would not be surprising if no one is held culpable or face a possible maximum jail sentence of 12 months. But confirmation from the Labour Department that only suspended jail sentences have been handed down in the past has prompted labour activists to make a constructive suggestion for a more effective deterrent to non-compliance with industrial safety law.
They have asked the government to learn from Britain, abandon the maximum fine of HK$500,000 in the Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance and make it unlimited. Such a change, they argue, would give a strong incentive to construction companies and contractors to ensure their workers perform their duties in a safe environment. An unlimited fine would not set any kind of benchmark against which to measure the gravity of an offence and therefore an appropriate penalty. A maximum fine that would hurt a company’s bottom line and get public attention would be more likely to be effective. The time is long past, in a civilised society, when loss of life and limb was acceptable collateral construction damage. Safe work sites are just as important as safe streets.