I am reminded by one of our legal readers that Hong Kong has so far refused to sign up to the Forced Labour Convention.

This is a well-intentioned antique. It was first agreed in 1930, by which signatory states agreed to ban or phase out “forced or compulsory labour.”

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Almost everyone has signed up for this by now. The list of exceptions is interesting: Afghanistan, Brunei, China, North Korea, Marshall Islands, Pelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and… the USA.

I suppose there is nothing to stop Hong Kong signing up. Before 1997 we were covered by the UK’s signature. Basic Law Article 151 allows the government of the Special Administrative Region to, on its own, “conclude and implement agreements with foreign states and regions and relevant international organisations in… appropriate fields.”

Article 153 says that “International agreements to which the People’s Republic of China is not a party but which are implemented in Hong Kong may continue to be implemented in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

It is difficult to see why Hong Kong has not signed up for this because the government would certainly say that it was already in compliance with the Convention, as there is no forced or compulsory labour in the territory.

Workers installing steel bars that were cut short to the wall of the Hung Hom station.

Not so fast. So it appeared until the latest developments in the Great MTR Construction Scandal. The news that funny things have been going on in the building of the Shatin to Central Link should surprise nobody. All the relevant officials and executives have been bestowing their attention on the equally expensive and late, but politically very salient Express Rail Link. The Shatin to Central line, which will merely serve the travelling needs of the Hong Kong public, was a neglected child.

When the cat is not looking the mice will play.

Still, this little scandal has highlighted the need to do something about forced or compulsory labour because that is, it seems, being inflicted on the MTRC’s luckless chairman Mr. Frederick Ma.

I quote: “Board chair Frederick Ma said he had tried to resign from his position twice, but the government did not accept his requests.” Mr Ma is, it seems, being compelled to soldier on against his own wishes, which might be to try something easier than running a politicised railway.

It is possible that Mr Ma’s idea of a resignation is a bit wobbly. “Do you want me to resign?” is not an attempted resignation, nor is “Will you sack me if I don’t resign?” or “Do you mind if I resign?” These invite the answers “no” “no” and “yes” respectively.

Frederick Ma. Photo: Screenshot.

But let us suppose that the conversation went “I resign”, “No, that’s not accepted.”

This is deplorable. Mr Ma is not a slave. He has the right, like the rest of us, to choose his employment. The idea that you can only resign with your employer’s consent is not applied to the rest of us. If you really want to resign, mate, try harder.

Mr Ma is, at least, considerably more sensitive to the matter of accountability than his boss, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan. At his press conference the question of resignation also came up, and the answer was this: “The government has immediately followed up on the problems as soon as they surfaced. You can judge for yourself the government’s performance.”

Now this will not do at all. Any dumb bunny can “follow up problems as soon as they surface.” No doubt the builders of the Tay Bridge or the Titanic would happily have expressed willingness to do the same thing. Nor is the “government’s performance” relevant. The important point is Mr Chan’s personal accountability as the responsible secretary.

The whole point of the “accountability” system is that secretaries are responsible for the segments of the government over which they preside. We cannot be expected to ferret through the entrails of the latest disaster to ascertain personal liability. Someone has to carry the responsibility of ensuring that disaster is averted.

We do not expect the government or its members to achieve perfection. But it is up to each secretary to ensure that the machinery over which he presides will deliver acceptable outcomes.

Housing and Transport Secretary Frank Chan. Photo: In-Media.

If we are insecure, we are entitled to blame the Secretary for Security. If we see injustice done, we are entitled to blame the Secretary for Justice. If we are poisoned by our food, we are entitled to blame the Secretary for Food and Health. Not because we foolishly suppose that those three people personally made the fatal error, but because it is up to them to arrange error-free service.

If a major error occurs they have failed. Mr Chan has failed. A flagship project has run aground on his watch. Whether he was aware of the approaching sandbank is neither here nor there. A secretary who is not aware of a problem until it “surfaces” in the press has been asleep at the wheel.

At moments like this, there is a temptation to quote Oliver Cromwell: “You have been sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

But that might be a bit extreme in the circumstances. Better perhaps that lovely World War one ditty: “We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go.”

In one respect Mr Chan can be considered unlucky. Transport and Housing used to be separate portfolios and putting them together produced an unmanageable juggernaut. His successors should be given one each.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.