Bizcuits | The value of labour

Leanda Lee

As an idealist, I have preferred to deny that people and cultures value human life differently. That stark contrast in values, or at least an appearance of difference, was made clear to me on a cruise up the Yangtze, when the river had become navigable but the gorges were yet to be completely flooded.

Catering to foreigners from various climes, the cruise had included a side-trip in a smaller boat to take in the sights up a tributary. Rounding a bend with cliffs soaring above, there came a shrill and disquieting cry of American origin, “There’s a dead body in the water! A dead body! Stop the boat.” Commotion ensued among the foreign passengers. Crew members were summoned, but their reaction was cool, much akin to an unconcerned shrug to a not uncommon occurrence.

Maybe something was discreetly communicated to the authorities so as not to dull what should have been an enjoyable excursion, but the matter-
of-fact response by the hosts suggested otherwise. Even more than the floating corpse, the lack of fuss and surprise exhibited by the crew became a great source of rancour among the first-world foreigners. The beauty of the surroundings disappeared in the disdain for the unfamiliar.

The recent litany of occupational accidents in Macau raises similar concerns as to the appropriateness of response by institutions and authority.

Any work-place death is unacceptable. From an average of 11.5 each year from 2004 to 2014, the highest number of fatalities due to occupational accident was recorded in Macau in 2016. There were 27 deaths that year and 20 in 2015. The spate of accidents this year is not surprising given the peak numbers leading up to this in the last two years.  It suggests there is something amiss in occupational health and safety management.

With the death of a worker struck by falling glass at Grand Lisboa Palace last September still fresh in our minds, another non-resident worker fell to his death on 18 June 2017. On 12 June a non-resident worker died at the new Public Prosecutions Office site and three others were injured. Then there was the week of horrors when a welder died at a Taipa construction site on 12 July, a non-resident lift technician was crushed under cables at a commercial building in NAPE on 13 July, and another non-resident was killed by a falling beam which also injured two others at the Morpheus site on 14 July.

Such a high frequency in such a short period demanded a concerted response from the government. As was also seen in June’s Lisboa and Public Prosecutions Office incidents and in April of 2015 when four construction sites were suspended, works have been halted pending investigation, and this time the director of Labor Affairs Bureau, Wong Chi Hong, and his inspectors stepped out onto 74 construction sites the following weekend and imposed 57 penalties.

Any crisis or harm does not just happen; there is a confluence of factors. The government focus has inevitably turned to the workers and the construction companies.  Workers skills, knowledge and awareness were enhanced by the introduction of the mandatory five-year Occupational Safety Card for construction workers in 2013, and each time there is an incident, contractors have been ordered to suspend work pending investigation and then to implement measures to improve occupational safety. Indeed, work accident statistics record contractor violations of occupational safety and health regulations.

There is however another function, one of oversight, which has now implicitly been called into question by the fact that 557 construction sites are to be inspected since these July deaths. What proactive internal measures and resources will the government strengthen to ensure that the ongoing status of occupational safety and regulatory compliance is known and improved upon without resorting to after-the-fact emergency inspections?

Categories Opinion