Flying Sand

There’s more to democracy than government – the fight for fairness begins in the workplace

Grim death toll from industrial accidents in Hong Kong shows that those preaching democracy need to cast their net wider in pursuit of justice

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 9:43pm

I hate to mention the D-word as it tends to generate more heat than light, especially in Hong Kong where it has become for some a synonym for nirvana.

I am of course talking about democracy, an exalted notion that has been with us since ancient Greece yet has only been able to muster in its defence as a system of government the argument that it isn’t as bad as all the rest. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Before I am labelled, tarred and feathered as an anti-democratic apologist for the one-party state, let me explain.

Whether the question be who needs it and why, when they need it and in what form, or how it should be dispensed, the jewel in the crown of democratic desire is a vote – a cross on a piece of paper once every four years or so. That so many knickers have got themselves into so much of a twist in pursuit of such a morsel has always struck me as strange.

On one level and one level only – be it local or central government – we demand, not unreasonably, the right to hold accountable those who make the policy decisions that affect our lives. If they aren’t up to the job, we can vote them out. That’s it, democracy all wrapped up, thanks and goodnight.

This is madness.

Whether we live in a society nominally designated as a democracy or not, the vast majority of adults spend the vast bulk of their adult life at work – in an office, a factory, a coffee shop, a call centre – and a fair portion of the time we are not in the workplace is spent either winding down from work, worrying about work or in preparation for work to come. Nowhere, as study after study has found, is this more true than in Hong Kong.

600,000 fall victim to workplace illnesses

Yet the second we cross the threshold of our workplace, we suffer what appears to be a democratic lobotomy. We do what we are told, take the money we are offered and if we don’t like it, we know where the door is.

The consequences – direct or indirect – of this democratic schizophrenia are many and varied. But it is clear – again, especially in Hong Kong – that not only can work take over our lives, it can be the death of us, and innocent bystanders, too, either slowly in the case of degenerative work-related illnesses or in the blink of an eye in an industrial or workplace accident.

In the wake of last week’s tragic bus crash in which three people lost their lives, the bus company admitted they were short-staffed and that the resultant changing shift patterns may have contributed to the driver not being fully alert when his bus careered off the road and into pedestrians. The driver of the bus was arrested. Drink or drug-driving aside – and we must await the outcome of the investigation – the bus driver has no meaningful say in who the company employs, when they employ them and how they are deployed.

Three dead and two critical after bus mounts pavement in one of Hong Kong’s busiest districts

The bus tragedy is the latest in an endless list of examples where the people who lose their lives or suffer life-changing injuries on the job or as a result of a workplace accident pay the biggest price, while the corporate decision makers who dictate when they work, how they work and how much they are paid bear little or no responsibility at all.

Recent figures from the Labour Department show that more than 10,000 industrial accidents are registered in Hong Kong each year. About 200 of them result in loss of life. The actual number is almost certainly far higher, as Chung Ling-so, vice-chairman of the Construction Site Workers General Union, told this newspaper earlier this year. 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 said.

As the Post also reported recently, since the option of a prison term was added to the industrial safety law in 1989, hundreds of workers have been killed transforming Hong Kong into a city fit for the 21st century. Yet only one jail sentence has been handed out – and that was suspended.

Since 1999, upwards of 500 people have been killed in industrial accidents. Most recently it emerged that since construction began in 2010, 10 workers have lost their lives and 600 more have been injured working on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge project.

Perhaps if the politicians pumped up on self-importance as they partake in abstract political point scoring turned their attention to a wider conception of democracy, we might make some progress.