25th September 2023 – (Hong Kong) The recent horrific deaths of two workers trapped in a manhole at a West Kowloon construction site spotlight glaring oversight failures enabling frequent fatal accidents. For too long, Hong Kong’s economic ambitions have overridden worker safety, allowing corporations to operate with impunity. But the escalating body count makes accountability and reform utterly unavoidable.

The scene was sadly familiar – rescuers unable to revive workers overcome in a confined space where precautions were lacking. Despite long-established safety protocols requiring qualified personnel and surface standby workers for such high-risk tasks, the contractors disregarded these.

That the victims remained trapped overnight before the alarm was raised underscores the sheer negligence. Project managers failed to notice two missing workers overnight. Attendance logs and gate records seemingly went unmonitored, allowing unsupervised, unauthorised entry.

Most infuriatingly, the site manager reportedly did not even show up after the bodies were found, with key figures involved remaining unidentified. This beggars belief for an accident of such gravity and reeks of evading responsibility. Many questions demand urgent answers.

Firstly, were mandated standby workers assigned aboveground? Secondly, why did the manager vanish when onsite leadership was desperately needed? Lastly, what other oversights enabled this preventable catastrophe? Authorities must establish clear accountability.

Construction consistently ranks as Hong Kong’s deadliest industry, claiming 17 lives in 2022 alone. Over 200 workers die annually across sectors – amounting to over 8,000 deaths in two decades. Yet long-held notions of inevitable collateral damage prevail, allowing government and corporations to escape culpability.

Fatal falls, equipment malfunctions and lax safety measures have driven Hong Kong’s workplace mortality rate to over 2 per 100,000 – twice that of Singapore and Japan. But mild penalties – averaging under HK$23,000 per fatality between 2020-2022 – provide zero disincentive for unscrupulous employers.

Even enhanced maximum penalties of HK$10 million and 2 years imprisonment introduced this April have yet to deter serial violators. Moreover, prosecutions focus on junior staff, while senior management evade sanctions.

Workplace safety advocates rightly accuse the government of gross regulatory negligence. The Labour Department lacks the manpower for adequate inspections, with just 194 inspectors monitoring over 350,000 sites. Proactive governance is sorely needed to override corporate expediency and profits-above-all mentally.

The laissez-faire ethos enabling this disregard for worker welfare must end. Hong Kong’s riches were built on the toil and sacrifice of labourers, not the munificence of tycoons. A prospering economy must not come at the cost of workers’ basic dignity and survival.

With the toll surging, platitudes invoking ‘blood-stained lessons’ now ring hollow without actual reforms. Preventability means deaths from permitting unsafe conditions constitute manslaughter, not unavoidable accidents. Fatalities must trigger serious reckonings, not nominal wrist-slaps absolving those truly responsible.

Only severe penalties forcing accountability and duty of care can offer some solace to grieving families. Concurrently, worker representatives gaining long-denied legislative council seats would enable more balanced policymaking. For too long, labour’s voice has been muted and dismissed.

State-of-the-art infrastructure characterises Hong Kong’s soaring skyline. But the human price behind this modernity cannot be ignored. Transforming the culture of disregard requires prioritising lives over profits and construction speed.

Workplace fatalities result directly from choices devaluing worker protections. These are preventable tragedies, not inevitable mishaps. Radical safety reforms are overdue – from increased manpower for enforcement to harsher sentencing signaling culpability extends to the top.

With adequate oversight and deterrence, safety compliance should become the norm rather than exception. Only by making worker welfare paramount can Hong Kong rectify its abysmal safety record. The time for accountability and workplace justice is now.