The last week has been deadly for construction workers working at Kai Tak: three have died in three separate incidents, with one falling from scaffolding, one crushed by a cement pod and one crushed by metalwork.
The concentration of deaths in place and time is unusual but the fatalities are not a surprise: Hong Kong has the most dangerous building sites in the developed world. Non-fatal construction accidents such as slips or falls increased 40% between 2011 and 2017, with 4,114 reported “incidents” and 22 deaths in 2017. Cover-ups are rife, as firms try to avoid any tender blacklists.
The Lam administration has continued Hong Kong’s long-standing practice of “light touch” building trade regulation. Hong Kong was still the easiest place in the whole world to get a construction permit in 2019, according to the World Bank – and workers are paying the price.
But it’s not just workers at risk from Hong Kong’s laissez-faire approach. The seams between construction projects and the community are often thoughtless and hazardous, testaments to the lack of care extended towards our public space.
Construction sites destroy their peripheral footpaths in our crowded districts. Pedestrians are regularly forced into roads without the necessary safety precautions, while surfaces are uneven and unkempt.
And no government department wants to take responsibility for this greyest of areas.
Labour Department says pedestrian issues are not worker safety problems, and people should complain to Highways or Lands. Highways says it’s a Transport issue, despite Highways being responsible for the Code of Practice. Transport says “noted, but talk to Buildings”. Buildings says it is only responsible for building safety, not pedestrians.
In a city where ticking the wrong box on a transport form could get you a criminal conviction, a billion-dollar development can knock up a dirty nail-infested illegal hoarding extending into public space, tear up a pavement and cover the holes with a few wooden planks, force pedestrians into a busy main road with no banksman or traffic calming, not even a passing nod to the Code of Practice… and escape even a wrist-slap from a government inspector.
At one site on Bonham Road, the government’s catch-all complaints centre 1823 eventually deemed Buildings Department as the responsible party for a shoddy and unsafe pavement condition. Buildings inspected the site. “No problems were found,” it said, about 8 months after the initial complaints.
The site was then passed from the demolition contractor to the foundation contractor, at which point, Buildings would no longer follow up the existing complaint, as it was a “new” project. Back to square one.
Through these different “owners”, the footpaths around such sites remain an obstacle for the less mobile for at least two to four years. And then, when the building is finished and black seven-seaters with Ningbo plates are pulling up to inspect the luxury $180 million apartments, the whole thing will start up again next door.
To its credit, Labour Department has vowed to step up its safety efforts in Kai Tak – it will start a month-long campaign to check safety laws and “vigorously” enforce the law within construction sites (which begs the question, shouldn’t Labour Department always be “vigorously” enforcing the law? Is its default state “languorously” enforcing the law?).
But cynicism aside, what about these pedestrian issues? With the government clueless on how to regulate the haphazard interface between construction and public space, who will take developers to task for their reckless endangerment of pedestrian life and the negative externalities on quality of mobility for walkers?