by Thu Huong Le
The tragic deaths of 13 con-struction workers at Vung Ang Economic Zone last week was the worst work-related accident so far this year. The accident happened when 20-metre-high scaffolding collapsed. The workers, most of them extremely poor, were buried under hundreds of tonnes of metal scaffolding.
The tragedy occurred only two weeks after Ha Tinh Province held a meeting in the Vung Ang Economic Zone to support the National Labour Safety Week. It was a stark reminder that slogans and speeches are meaningless unless they are accompanied by action to protect workers.
The workers were erecting a seawall, part of a US$10 billion steel complex being built by a subsidiary of the Taiwanese transnational, Formosa Plastics Group (FPG). Many of them had started working just a few days before the accident.
According to media reports, the site of the Formosa- Ha Tinh steel-making complex was already a hot-spot for work accidents. Two workers were killed and three others injured in July 2014, due to failure of a water plant. In January, another was killed at the construction site of Posco 2 Company within the steel complex after a staircase of a conveyor assembly line collapsed.
Apparently these ongoing horrors did not ring a bell loud enough for inspectors. Survivors of last week's deadly collapse claimed that they tried to leave the site when the scaffolding started to shake, but were ordered to return. The cause of the collapse was apparently a technical failure in the scaffolding's hydraulic brake system.
On Monday, 44 members of Samsung C&T, a subsidiary of Samsung, a subcontractor responsible for hiring the workers, were temporarily barred from leaving the country. On Tuesday, police started a criminal investigation into the collapse.
Families of the victims received compensation amounting to VND400 million (US$19,000) each, but their families will bear the effects of their deaths throughout their lives. This leads one to ask if neglect of workers at the bottom of the social scale is the hidden price we pay for infrastructure development.
Work-related accidents do not kill as many people as traffic accidents, but many of them go unreported. Many injured workers, who are often family breadwinners, are disabled for life. According to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, 630 people were killed in 6,709 work accidents last year and many were injured.
The Department of Work Safety estimates that construction accidents accounts for 33.1 per cent of total work accidents and nearly 34 per cent of work deaths. But some officials believe these are just the reported numbers as many unreported work accidents involve seasonal workers or temporary workers with no contracts.
At a meeting held last year to discuss the draft Law on Work Safety and Hygiene, Deputy Chairperson of the NA Committee on Social Affairs Bui Sy Loi, said that only seven per cent of companies reported work accidents. Loi said the number of work-related deaths was believed to be about 20 times higher than reported.
Preventing work accidents requires co-ordinated efforts from all agencies. Firms and subcontractors must be required to provide workers with insurance, safety gear and regular training. Negligence by inspectors was among the reasons given for the scaffolding collapse. It is no consolation to the departed or their families to increase inspections after a tragedy happens.
Pham Tran De, deputy head of the HaTinh provincial economic zone, told a press conference following the accident that there were 30,000 workers at the site and that inspections were limited to "warning and reminding" employees about work safety.
Shortage of labour inspectors and also their limited capabilities mean they cannot cover all companies in their defined areas, especially in provinces such as Ha Tinh with many industrial and economic zones. Heavier fines and stronger regulations that require subcontractors to enhance protection for workers are clearly needed. Firms that put people in charge of work safety must ensure these people do their job.
Like traffic accidents, few work accidents lead to prosecutions, let alone jail terms. Labour inspectors and police can place work-accident cases before prosecutors, but failure to clearly identify those responsible is always a problem. In many cases, workers' families simply accept compensation from subcontractors and the cases are said to be settled.
The neglect of work safety rules is common among employers and sometimes even among workers, who are under pressure to earn more money. Survivors of the Formosa-Ha Tinh tragedy said they were ordered to return to the scaffolding even after raising concerns that it might collapse. When all else failed, the instinct for self preservation was their only lifeline..
Last but not least, where are the trade unions during all this? Under pressure to meet deadline, subcontractors rely more and more on seasonal workers, who are lured by offers of higher pay. This seems like a perfect match, until accidents happen.
This time, Ha Tinh Police said they will prosecute those responsible for the collapse. We hope their efforts do not fade into silence, like in many other tragedies. — VNS