How much is the life of a worker in Hong Kong worth nowadays? According to the courts, as little as HK$15,000, if they die as a result of employer negligence over safety.

Not only is this sum derisory, but fines for negligent companies involved in the construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge have been plunging downwards since the first convictions for safety breaches were brought in 2018.

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge Hong Kong port artificial island.
Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge Hong Kong port artificial island. Photo: GovHK.

A new low point was reached last Monday when two companies, WSS Engineering Systems and United Construction and Manpower, were fined HK$30,000 each for two deaths resulting from what magistrate Lam Tsz-kan described as  “turning a blind eye to the safety of working conditions” and not fulfilling their responsibilities as employers.

In 2019, three contractors were fined a total of HK$614,000 for two deaths and 27 breaches of occupational safety, amounting to an average tariff of just over HK$102,000 per company, per life.

This turned out to be the high point of convictions in 2018: in a case involving another two fatalities, the average “cost” per head was just HK$82,000.

Both cases involved the same contractors: Dragages Hong Kong, China Harbour Engineering Company and VSL Hong Kong. No custodial sentences were handed out to anyone involved in these cases.

West Kowloon Magistrates Court Law Courts Building
West Kowloon Magistrates Courts. File photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

These fatalities, on what became known as the “Bridge of Death”, were part of a total of 10 deaths and some 600 injuries that occurred between 2010 and 2018 while the bridge was under construction. However, this record of misery only applies to the Hong Kong part of the project, Mainland authorities have released no details of accidents on their side of the construction programme.

By any standards, this is an incredibly high injury toll for a single construction project, and the suspicion lurks that it was caused by a fatal combination of contractor negligence and intense political pressure to complete the bridge following a litany of delays and cost hikes.

Even if the courts were minded to impose heavier penalties for safety negligence, there is an upper limit of HK$500,000 on fines, although it is rarely — if ever — imposed. The average fine in these cases amounts to HK$92,000.

By gruesome coincidence on August 24, the same day that contractors were being asked to pay HK$30,000 as a fine for negligence leading to loss of life, government prosecutors were busy in another courtroom seeking HK$50,000 and three-month jail sentences for defendants found guilty of damaging the office of Legislative Councillor Junius Ho.

Junius Ho Kwan-yiu
Junius Ho Kwan-yiu. File Photo: Stand News/RTHK screen capture.

Property damage must therefore rate some way above human life in this crazy judicial system. Hong Kong is not alone in assuming this attitude, but few other jurisdictions are quite this lax in punishing employers whose negligence causes serious injury and loss of life.

When the bridge was finally completed in 2018, a number of Legislative Council members suggested erecting a memorial to those who died or were injured during construction. Not only was this proposal ignored, officials had spent much of the time while building was underway ignoring the human cost of the project and, when forced to confront the problem, downplaying its gravity.

And for what did these workers lose their lives? A bridge that is barely used, cost a fortune to build, and stands as a lingering memorial to politically-motivated white elephant projects which gobble up taxpayers’ money.

Astonishingly, perhaps because too many other things are happening right now, this appalling lack of justice and waste of human life is being overlooked.

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Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship