Pro-democracy lawmakers have accused the Hong Kong government of providing misleading data related to workplace deaths during the construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.

In a document submitted to the legislature, the Labour Department said there were five fatalities and 234 injuries related to the megaproject between 2011 and the first three quarters of 2016. It did not state how the numbers were counted.

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge
Construction site of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. File Photo: GovHK.

Lawmaker Nathan Law questioned the figures during a Finance Committee’s meeting last Friday. He said the 2014 figures provided by the department – one fatality – did not match with news reports of at least four fatalities that year.

Commissioner for Labour Carlson Chan Ka-shun replied: “The term ‘industrial accident’ covers only accidents that took place on land or on bridges. Those occurring in the sea or on boats are a matter for the Marine Department.”

He said there had been a combined nine fatalities that took place on land and in the sea since construction commenced in 2011. This number was not provided in the Labour Department’s document.

Law slammed Chan for not being upfront about the information. “Everyone here is frowning. Obviously when we asked you for the data, we were not just asking for fatalities that took place on land. You are building a bridge over the water, how can you not include accidents that occurred in the sea?”

Nathan Law Kwun-chung
Nathan Law Kwun-chung. File Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung criticised Chan for being “ridiculous.”

“Even if the government has different categories for the death rates, you have the responsibility to inform us and give us figures that reflect the totality of the situation,” he said.

“These are human lives we are talking about. Those who died will never come back to life. Do you understand why the way you handled it is wrong?”

‘Weak enforcement’

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance, construction work may be suspended if the authorities consider that a hazard to employees is imminent. The department said it issued 821 warnings and 253 suspension or improvement notices between 2011 and last month.

But Leung said the existing system was not enough to ensure safety for workers.

“If you use suspension as punishment, contractors will rush to meet project deadlines after resumption, and there will be a higher risk of fatal accidents,” he said.

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge
Workers at the construction site of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. File Photo: GovHK.

Meanwhile, Nathan Law raised concern over the government’s ability to enforce safety laws. Contractors are required by law to report industrial accidents within seven days to the Labour Department, but Law said companies sometimes conceal the cases out of fear that their insurance premium may increase if they make too many reports.

“This will lead to weak enforcement because the government does not have accurate data to respond accordingly. The safety ratings of the contractors also do not reflect the reality,” Law warned.

He noted that local media estimated over 600 injuries related to the megaproject over the past five years, though the government said there had been 234 injuries.

See also: Second worker found dead after platform collapse at Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge project

Two weeks ago, an accident at the project site left two dead and three others injured. The relevant construction work has been suspended while the authorities are investigating the cause of the incident.

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Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.