How many more people have to die for the sake of a bridge?

April 14, 2017 18:30
The death and injury toll on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge is the most public face of Hong Kong’s unusually high level of industrial accidents compared with other jurisdictions. Photo: Xinhua

Hong Kong construction workers are calling it the "bridge of death" and refusing to work there but the chief bureaucrat who is supposed to be ensuring workers’ safety is busy turning away from the problem and insisting that the companies building the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge are solely to blame.

Last week in Legco, the Commissioner for Labour Carson Chan Ka-shun seemed intent on not only proving his indifference but also a determination to play down the problem.

He presented legislators with a document showing that since work started on the project in 2011 until the third half of 2016 the labor force had suffered five fatalities and 234 injuries. However, 10 people have died and, according to Legislator Nathan Law, more than 600 injuries have been recorded in the media in addition to the fatalities.

Chan gave no reason for not bringing the figures up to date but explained the discrepancy between his numbers and media reports by the almost unbelievable of bureaucratic answers, insisting that his department was only responsible for looking at deaths that had occurred on land or on the bridge itself; other fatalities occurring in the sea on boats were, he insisted, "a matter for the Marine Department".

Moreover Chan seems satisfied that the Occupation Safety and Health Ordinance is working just fine and contains sufficient deterrents to keep construction company employers on their toes. However, union representatives and others maintain that enforcement of the law is weak and often ineffective.

The reality is that under this law the maximum fine for infringements is capped at HK$500,000, although the average fine actually levied amounts to HK$92,000. There is also a cap of one year on prison sentences for work safety offenses but as everyone knows the person standing in the dock is far more likely to be a supervisor or a manager rather than one of the bosses of the companies benefiting from these multi-million-dollar contracts.

The death and injury toll on the bridge project is the most public face of Hong Kong’s unusually high level of industrial accidents compared with other jurisdictions.

This mega project will cost Hong Kong taxpayers almost HK$118 billion plus other contributions from the Zhuhai and Macau governments and loan financing. Building this bridge has been fraught ever since the property developer and builder Gordon Wu first proposed the scheme back in 1983.

He was pretty much ignored by the colonial government of the day but since then the SAR government has fallen in love with all projects that tie Hong Kong closer to the mainland and it has demonstrated that money is no object but speed is of the essence.

Thus the original plan was for this project to be completed by the end of last year, a mere five years after work started in earnest. By any standards, this was a crazy target that, of course, has been missed. Indeed the new target of completion by 2020 is also highly likely to be missed. The net result, as was pointed out by legislators this week, is that the interests of safety have been sacrificed in the interests of speed.

The human toll of this ill-conceived scheme, with its crazy schedule, is there for all to see – or maybe not if you are in the Labour Department where blame shifting is the number one priority.

In the meantime, costs have ballooned and the government has allowed the project to drift while devoting its energy to criticizing the legislators who have been scrutinizing the project, accusing them of blocking progress.

The lethal mess that is the "bridge of death" has, in recent months, been the subject of a little publicized expert consultant’s investigation. What are the chances of their findings coming to light?

And, in case anyone has forgotten, the reality remains that the authorities have still not worked out how this bridge is actually to be used unless it remains confined to the tiny number of vehicles with very expensive cross-border permits.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.