Two officials said Wednesday that they “regretted” the fatal accidents that took place at the project site of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, as a union of construction workers asked the government to rectify the situation.

Commissioner for Labour Carlson Chan Ka-shun and Highways Department’s representative Albert Lee Wai-bun said at a special meeting at the legislature that they regretted the incidents. Lee said he was “very sad” and sent “his deep condolences to the relatives of the deceased.”

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

Deputy Director of Marine Wong Sai-fat, who also attended the session, stopped short of making a similar statement.

‘Bridge of death’

The Construction Site Workers General Union, the Labour Party and the Confederation of Trade Unions staged a protest outside the legislature calling on the government to investigate the accidents and improve workplace safety.

They described the fatalities as a “mass murder” and asked the government to put a halt to it.

Union leader Chan Pat-kan said: “I have seen many instances where the engineering department [of a construction company] rejected safety suggestions by the safety department on the basis that they had deadlines to meet. Work progress is always the priority.”

Construction workers asked the government to “stop mass murder” and improve workplace safety. Photo: Labour Party.

Albert Lee of the Highways Department said the government would “definitely” not sacrifice workplace safety in order to ensure the megaproject meets its deadlines.

Meanwhile, the Labour Department said it conducted more than 1,380 inspections, made 329 prosecutions and issued over 280 suspension or improvement notices since construction commenced in 2011. He said authorities regularly meet with contractors and workers to discuss safety measures.

“Unfortunately, we have done so much, but fatalities still occurred,” the labour commissioner said.

‘Bridge of death’

But lawmakers Lau Siu-lai and Leung Yiu-chung questioned the effectiveness of these measures.

“The workers call it the ‘bridge of death’ – they are horrified that they may die while working on the project,” Lau said. “You have worked hard on inspections, but you don’t seem to put the same level of effort in monitoring contractors and spotting problems.”

Lau Siu-lai
Lau Siu-lai. File Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said the maximum penalty for violating safety laws should be raised, such as by introducing prison terms and upping the level of fines. He alleged that the Labour Department had ignored such demands over the years.

Safety beyond the borders

Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung also raised concern over accidents in the Chinese section of the project.

“The project is known as the ‘bridge of blood and tears’ and we are only talking about the Hong Kong side. We don’t even know what is happening in China. I suppose the situation could be 10 times worse than that in Hong Kong,’ he said.

He said Hong Kong authorities sit on a cross-border committee overseeing the project. “Hong Kong should also ensure workplace safety on the Chinese side, but we don’t know anything about it and the Hong Kong government does not want to inform us. This should be condemned.”

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

Two weeks ago, an accident at the project site left two dead and three others injured. The Highways Department said it is conducting an independent investigation and will submit a report to the department head within three months. An interdepartmental probe is also underway, though the government did not give an estimate as to how long it will take.

The government has said it considered the incident to be “very serious.”

Last Friday, the Labour Department came under fire for providing lawmakers with “misleading” death rates. It said there were five deaths between 2011 and 2016, but it did not state that the numbers only covered accidents that took place on land and on bridges.

When confronted by lawmakers, the labour commissioner said there had been a total of nine fatalities on land and in the sea.

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

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