How Hong Kong employers cut corners on safety and and hide workplace injuries
As city prepares to mark Labour Day, construction and maintenance workers talk about deadly work practices and the lengths to which companies go to avoid reporting injuries and paying accident compensation
Wong Wing-yung’s world was turned upside down a few weeks ago when news came that her father had died in an accident at work. Wong Tung-keung, a 47-year-old technician, had fallen from four metres while repairing air-conditioning pipes at L’hotel Nina in Tsuen Wan.
As Labour Department officials investigate the case, Wong Wing-yung questions whether work site safety standards were sufficiently rigorous to ensure a safe working environment.
“There wasn’t even a basic work platform,” Wong says of the scene the next day when she went to make offerings at the machine room where her father died.
“There was a wooden ladder, but it was chained to the side. [My father] climbed up the pipes with his bare hands and fell to his death. I have many questions, but no one could give me answers.”
Hotel owner Chinachem had appointed a contractor to undertake its air-conditioning maintenance, and, as is often the case, the work was farmed out to a subcontractor which employed her father. But none could provide any details about his death, Wong says.
She adds: “He was the breadwinner of the family. I am studying and my mother is a housewife, so we feel helpless about the future.”
The Labour Department registers more than 10,000 industrial accidents in Hong Kong each year. About 200 result in loss of life, but labour activists say the number of workplace accidents in the city is far worse and estimate the number of job-related injuries at five times the official figure.
Chung Ling-so, vice-chairman of the Construction Site Workers General Union, says employers are reluctant to report workplace injuries to the government for fear of losing future contracts.
“Contractors tell staff not to call 999 ... [because] reports of even minor injuries will affect their future bids for government projects. Except very serious injuries, workers don’t go to emergency wards,” he says.
Instead, contractors or construction companies send injured workers to their own panel doctors and honour the prescribed sick leave.
Chung says contractors prefer to make private settlements for job-related injuries and cites a colleague who broke his arm on a construction site as a typical example.
“The employer asked him not to report [his injury] to the Labour Department and offered one-off compensation involving tens of thousands of dollars. He complied and sought medical care from the contractor’s doctor,” Chung recalls. “It’s stupid, as he cannot pursue any further medical claims arising from his injury.”
Employers are required by law to report any work-related injuries to the Labour Department within 14 days and fatalities within seven days.
On the face of it, most employers comply – there have been just a couple of convictions in the past four years for failure to notify the government of industrial accidents.
But the chief executive of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, Chan Kam-hong, contrasts this with the lengths to which companies go to avoid reporting workplace injuries.
There is no avoiding reports of job-related fatalities. However, Chan says when injuries occur, many businesses will quickly redesignate their renovation workers, repair men and drivers as self-employed personnel.
“Employers try to shirk responsibility. They use financial inducements to coax workers into accepting the arrangement. Workers are satisfied as long as they can continue working. But after a while, the evidence for pursuing compensation [over lax safety standards] is lost and the case is dropped,” he says.
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Ordinance, employers who fail to provide a safe workplace are liable to a maximum fine of HK$500,000 and up to six months’ imprisonment.
However, between 2012 and 2015, the average fine issued to the more than 2,000 people prosecuted annually was less than HK$20,000. No one has ever gone to jail for workplace safety violations.
Similarly, employers who fail to take adequate measures to prevent workers falling from a height face up to 12 months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to HK$200,000. But the average penalty over the past two years came to just HK$17,000.
Recalcitrant companies that put profits ahead of worker safety will hardly be deterred when the authorities show such leniency, Chan says.
“Employers would rather pay a fine than slow down to fit workplaces with proper safety equipment.”
Just as the number of large infrastructure projects (examples) undertaken over the past few years have boosted employment for construction workers, construction site accidents have risen to more than 3,000 annually, with a 9.2 per cent year-on-year increase in mishaps in 2015.
Chung blames the lack of safety equipment and care at building sites.
“There are usually many layers of subcontractors. When workers sign a contract, it usually states goggles, ear plugs, masks and so on will be provided. But when you arrive on site, there’s nothing from the employer besides a hard hat... Government construction sites are better equipped, but private ones are bad,” he says.
“But with many [residential] projects going on, the Labour Department tell us they are short of staff to carry out inspections all over Hong Kong. When accidents happen, there will be inspections. But contractors learn about these in advance and everybody just stages a safety show.”
Responding to queries, a Labour Department spokesman says officials have stepped up inspections at places undertaking high-risk work, including construction sites.
“Apart from conducting regular surprise inspections, we continue to launch special enforcement operations targeting high-risk processes, such as work-at-height, lifting operations and electrical work. We will undertake prosecutions as appropriate without prior warning.”
The department will also work with property managers to improve safety for personnel working at height, including the use of proper working platforms and safety helmets.
The spokesman says it is up to the judiciary to hand down sentences for workplace safety violations as it deems appropriate, although the Labour Department may seek a review when necessary to increase deterrence.
Hong Kong has a compensation system in case of workplace fatalities, based on the age of the deceased:
If the worker is under 40 years old, the family will receive seven years’ pay; families of those aged between 40 and 56 get five years’ pay, and those of older workers will have only three years’ pay.
But Chan says this system lags behind other developed economies and is far from sufficient to ensure that workers’ families are adequately cared for.
Citing the case of a 30-year-old construction worker who died recently, he says the family will receive about HK$1 million under the system. But the worker was the sole breadwinner and left a wife and seven-year-old son.
“How is the family going to live after the child turns 14?” Chan asks. “International labour conventions and even Chinese legislation stipulate that families can get support until the children become self-sufficient.”
The family of air-conditioning worker Wong Tung-keung will be entitled to five years’ pay. But his daughter Wing-yung reckons it will be two years before they receive any payment from the insurance company.
“We must wait until the case is heard in the Coroner’s Court,” she says. “Chinachem offered us a one-off compassion payment of HK$100,000 for burial and other expenses, but we rejected it. They and the subcontractor did not show enough respect to the deceased and his family. We tried to go to the scene to burn incense sticks to appease the spirit of the dead in line with Chinese custom, but they prevented us from doing that.”
To unionist Chung Ling-so, compensation for workplace injury is just as inadequate. Payouts are determined based n the seriousness of injury and the corresponding loss of ability, after evaluation by labour officials.
But contractors have long adopted parallel pay systems to reduce their liability for workers’ injury, Chung says.
“It’s common for construction workers to receive two salaries. A contract may set the daily wage at HK$600 ,which is deposited into the workers’ bank accounts. Besides that, they are paid HK$400 in cash daily. Employers dispense with cheques as these leave a paper trail.
“They tell workers that such an arrangement is for their benefit as they can pay less tax. But if accidents happen in the workplace, workers are entitled only to compensation calculated according to the HK$600 [daily wage],” he explains.
Chung has continually brought this loophole to Labour Department attention, but to no avail.
Even securing wages can be a challenge, as Chung found four years ago when a contractor failed to pay him the HK$5,000 he was owed. He complained to the Labour Department, and the case was referred to the Wan Chai district court.
“Both the second contractor and the third contractor had previous convictions for similar offences, and were eventually fined several thousand dollars. But I still received nothing. Employers would rather pay the fine than workers’ salary,” he says.
“Our union staff often accompany workers to court over pay disputes. Having been sued many times before, some employers don’t really care.”