Who is to be held accountable for the fatal industrial accidents in Hong Kong? 

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The city is still employing the same punishment framework since the 1990s

Fatal industrial accidents are all too common in Hong Kong. Yet the penalty for infractions of workplace safety and health are still fairly lenient. In most cases, employers are merely fined HKD 20,000 (USD 2,500) for a tragic workplace accident.

The Hong Kong Government announced its plan to review the current occupational safety and health (OSH) regulations back in 2017. However, it took the government five years to present the amendment bill in the city’s legislature, the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo). Why did it take so long for the government to amend the regulations that impacts lives and deaths?

Regulations without revision for two decades

The two laws that regulate Hong Kong’s OSH have not been revised since 1994 and 1997. In Hong Kong Policy Address 2017, the Hong Kong government announced its plan to revise the law. Two years later, in 2019, the Hong Kong Labour Department proposed an amendment bill which would raise the maximum fine from HKD 300,000 to HKD 3,000,000, and increase the maximum imprisonment term from 6 months to 2 years.

Most importantly, the amendment bill proposed by the Labour Department could provoke the employers’ General Duties provisions to prosecute the duty holders, with the relevant maximum fine pitched at 10% of the convicted entities’ turnover or $6 million (whichever is the higher), and set the maximum imprisonment term at three years.

Objections from the business sector

This initial proposal matched the maximum fine to the convicted company’s turnover. In other words, there was no upper limit for the fine. The bigger the corporation, the higher the fine they would have to pay once convicted. This proposal answered concerns over whether small and medium-sized enterprises could afford the fine while making sure that the legal liability is strong enough to deter companies, especially those who consistently flout the law.

However, the initial proposal was met with strong opposition from the business sector arguing that the proposal was “unfair” to big corporations. The government thus made a U-turn and dropped this proposal. In 2021, the government drew up a new proposal capping the maximum penalty at HKD 50,000,000 and dropping the provision to match the fine to the company’s turnover. However, this amendment failed to gain the business sector’s support.

In February 2022, the Hong Kong government made the current proposal, dramatically lowering the maximum penalty by 80%, from HKD 50,000,000 to HKD 10,000,000. It would still be an improvement when compared with the current penalty, which was set under the standard two decades ago. However, when compared to the billions of annual revenue construction companies make, HKD 10,000,000 is a pittance. The reality is that construction companies wouldn’t be deterred by a penalty fine that would probably cost less than the apartment they are selling.

Action speaks louder than words. Whilst the government said they care about OSH and “one industrial tragedy is too many”, this amendment bill is the best evidence that the government put big corporate profit over workers’ life.

89 lives lost during the five years of delay

The sad truth is, since the government indicated its plan to review the OSH regulations in 2017, with all the delays in the past five years, there have been at least 89 fatal industrial accidents, taking 95 lives. These tragic losses could have been prevented if the government had amended the law and adopted stricter punishment. But nothing could ease the pain and loss of those families who are victims of the delays and ineffectiveness of these regulations.

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