The Labour Department has hit back at criticism over its complex reporting and public complaint procedures, saying the process is “definitely not to cut our workload or somehow put members of the public off from reporting dangers.”
This is a personal account of the experience I had flagging a dangerous construction site to Labour Department last year and why I believe we need a public inquiry into Hong Kong’s abysmal worker safety record.
In November, I filed a complaint concerning a construction site in Kowloon Tong where I could see workers at height with no safety harnesses or safety rails on the unfinished building.
Falling from height is a leading cause of death in construction – indeed, a man died just yesterday as a result of falling from the 15th floor of an unfinished public housing project in Anderson Quarry, one of probably around 20 who will die this year from construction falls and one of 40 who will likely die on constructions sites this year.
Alarmed by what I saw, I emailed photos of the dangerous (and illegal) work practice directly to Labour Department on 21 November, 2022, with an interim reply received on 24 November saying the department was looking into it.
On 22 December, a month after identifying the danger to Labour Department, I was invited for an interview at their regional office in To Kwa Wan. According to the interviewing official, I would need to give a full statement. I didn’t have much to add to the email I’d originally sent, other than to confirm the date, time, weather and specific location the photo was taken. But the official wanted to ask a lot more questions, rather laboriously, and, after an hour, I had to leave the interview unfinished.
The official then claimed he had been unable to take a full statement as I’d cut the meeting short, and invited me back for another interview, this one for 27 January 2023. The official said the process would take another two hours, and that, when complete, I would also have to attend a court hearing which might take half a day.
At this point, and with the building concerned almost completed, I shot off an email to the Ombudsman about obstructionist tactics from Labour Department, and informed the Labour Department that if they couldn’t prosecute a building site where a short-sighted civilian could spot a dozen health and safety violations then they had no business being in charge of worker safety.
I then received a syrupy email explaining how hard they had worked on the case and that, indeed, their process was definitely not designed to put people off complaining.
But really, we all know the truth. The strict gatekeeping of complaints from the public is essential for an impotent, bloated civil service that is afraid of the industries and tycoons they are supposed to be policing.
Unnecessary deaths, toothless regulator
The man who died in the construction fall yesterday was working on a public housing project. He was 52 years old and had two sons in school, aged 12 and 17. The family was living in rented accommodation and had been on the waiting list for public housing for some years. His widow collapsed in grief outside the mortuary yesterday after identifying his body.
Labour’s response to his unnecessary and preventable death (a fall from an unguarded edge, exactly the scenario I had photographed and sent to them from Kent Road in November), is copy-paste from all its other responses. Labour is saddened. Concerned. “We commenced an immediate on-site investigation […] issued a suspension notice to the contractor concerned, suspending any work near the buildings’ edges on the site that may expose workers to risks of falling from height.”
They’ve been saying this for years, literally decades. And nothing changes.
Warner Cheuk, now Deputy Chief Secretary, started an all-sector anti-fall campaign as Labour Commissioner in 2013. He announced $2.5 million for small businesses to buy safe mobile working platforms, and published a book with pretty diagrams explaining the causes of industrial accidents.
And to be fair, Cheuk’s campaign did a lot of good in industries outside of construction: deadly falls at work, excluding construction, dropped from 15 in 2013 to zero in 2021. But in the building trade, Hong Kong’s darling, Cheuk’s initiative had no effect. 18 fatal construction falls in 2013, 18 fatal construction falls in 2021 (the last full-year figures are available).
In Asia’s World City, construction remains a deadly and dangerous profession.
Public inquiry will expose the rot, find solutions
We need a broad-scale public inquiry into our lapsed and frankly medieval construction safety: this will tackle not only the awful situation on building sites but the way those sites interface with the public, on streets and pavements. It will allow honest appraisal of the situation and challenges, not a witch hunt but well away from the government’s annual “Construction Safety Week” mode, where only positive propaganda is allowed and where the hot issues are never publicly debated.
Current thinking will not shift the needle.
In response to the Anderson Quarry death yesterday, a unionist this morning called for harsher penalties and for longer investigation periods. “For many fatal occupational accidents the penalty is only HK$20-30,000 and there are many companies that violate the law again, and not only once,” Lam Chun-sing told RTHK’s Today programme.
Lam makes a good point but in fact the maximum penalty – $500,000 and six months prison – is already way above the low fines generally given, so will increasing the maximum to $10 million make much of a difference?
And will giving Labour Department MORE time to conduct its plodding lazy investigations really do anything to sharpen construction firm practices? Right now, we have a tangled bureaucratic mess that failed to receive a straightforward statement even from a willing and cooperative citizen. Give them more time, they’ll waste it, guaranteed.
Construction firms know this, of course, and nothing will change until we get to the bottom of the poor risk management and poor safety culture in the city.
A public inquiry is a big ask: the government’s refusing even a post-Covid inquiry and is unlikely to stick its neck out on such a previously opaque topic. But unless we can address this, publicly, with input from all stakeholders, the coming years will only get more deadly for the people building Hong Kong.