Measures to minimize industrial accidents must be taken without delay in HKSAR

Recently, in a terrible industrial accident involving the collapse of a crane on a construction site, three workers were killed and another six injured. Together with the accident at a concert of Hong Kong boy band Mirror, it has already been the second tragedy that has drawn public attention within a short period of time. 

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government has rightly made a swift response, promising thorough investigations into the accidents. Whatever the investigations will find out, one thing is clear by now: It is time the authorities take action to tighten the regulations on workplace safety and increase the penalty to minimize the potential risks that front-line workers face.

According to the report “Occupational Safety and Health Statistics”, issued by the Labour Department, the number of occupational injuries in all economic activities has remained steady since 2016, at about 35,000 cases per year. The number even declined slightly in 2020, probably because of intermittent interruptions of work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the number went up again in 2021, when more than 30,000 cases were reported. Worse still, the death toll also surged to 263 the same year, the highest in the last decade, with 25 reported in the construction industry.

It is the responsibility of employers to ensure the safety of the workers; employers who have failed to provide sufficient safety equipment or a safe working environment should be punished. Currently, under the Hong Kong Law Chapters 59 and 509, the Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance and the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance, violators can be fined up to HK$500,000 ($63,700) and imprisoned for up to 12 months. Unfortunately, the authorities have not implemented the penalties to the fullest to give irresponsible employers an unforgettable lesson. According to the analysis of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, the government issued 4,408 summonses from January to March 2020 with only HK$33.4 million in total fines, meaning the average fine for each summons was less than HK$7,600, which serves as no deterrence to irresponsible employers.

Given the growing number of accidents in the workplace and the leniency of the penalties, many pro-labor groups have been calling for amendment to the relevant regulations, including increasing fines for employers who are found responsible for the negligence of the safety of staff. As a result, the government has taken the step to launch a bill in the Legislative Council, raising the maximum penalty to a HK$10 million fine and two years of imprisonment for extremely serious offenses that cause death or serious injuries to workers, and that extends the time limit for prosecution from six months to one year to allow sufficient time for authorities to conduct a comprehensive investigation and collect sufficient evidence. However, the amendment bill has still fallen short of the expectations of pro-labor organizations.

In fact, the safety of workers has drawn increasing attention in many advanced countries, wherein relevant regulations are more comprehensive and have stronger deterrence. For example, in Australia, the maximum penalty for employers who fail to provide their staff with adequate safety equipment or a safe workplace is a fine of A$3.5 million ($2.34 million) and five years of imprisonment. In the United Kingdom, the punishment is much heavier, with no limit on fines for employers involved in malpractice. Since the adoption of severe penalties for occupational safety violations, the number of offenses has been steadily declining, prompting labor unions in Hong Kong to advocate the adoption of similar approaches here in Hong Kong.

The SAR government has chosen a progressive approach in amending regulations. But the local business sector has still raised concerns, saying that higher fines could eventually lead to the shutdown of many small and medium-sized enterprises in the construction industry, and thus reduce job opportunities for workers. Nonetheless, the lives of workers are priceless. The concerns over higher operating costs should not come before the safety of workers. It is true that the cost pressure on employers would be increased, but it is also true that the tragedies would be minimized.

President Xi Jinping expressed his “four hopes” for Hong Kong society during the swearing-in ceremony for the new SAR administration, held on July 1, including improving the lives of ordinary citizens, among others. Conceivably, the improvement of labor rights should also deserve the sufficient attention of society.

The author is a community officer of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.