Aliran is appalled at the loss of workers’ lives in a landslide at the Bukit Kukus paired road construction site in Penang. The landslide brought down several containers and wooden shacks, claiming at least seven lives with another three victims still missing and injuring three people.
This tragic incident comes almost a year after the Tanjung Bungah hill-slope collapse [the first anniversary falls today], which killed 11 workers at the Granito housing project site.
While it is unclear what exactly happened at Bukit Kukus, the recent landslide does raise several issues.
One is the vulnerability of construction workers who were, in this incident, migrant workers from Myanmar, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
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That some of the victims were thought to be buried alive in or under the containers raises the issue of housing of workers at construction sites in containers or shacks. It also highlights the issue of their safety, especially as a stop work order in the site had been recently issued when 14 concrete beams came tumbling down.
While the construction sector is considered one of the most unsafe and high-risk job sectors in the world given its association with a high number of injuries and deaths, we cannot help but ask about site safety regulations to ensure the safety of the workers. What were the safety measures being taken in Bukit Kukus? Could the deaths of these victims have been avoided?
The deaths of these migrant workers will most likely not only leave their families grief-stricken but also deprive these families of a breadwinner, very possibly driving them into poverty and despair. Who is going to bear the responsibility for this?
Layering this issue is the controversial ongoing construction on or along the edge of hill slopes despite criticism from concerned groups and individuals. We note that Penang Forum through its Penang Hill Watch group had raised the safety issue in hill-slope clearings in the Bukit Kukus area to the state government and local authorities on two occasions previously.
The Penang Island City Council apparently responded by saying that this was a road construction project and they were monitoring the work.
According to a recent media report, however, a Penang government initiative to inspect construction sites across the state found that soil erosion mitigation measures had not been carried out. A consultant civil engineer familiar with the initiative reportedly said, “Every contractor failed to do soil erosion measure in every site.”
The clearing of hill slopes for construction adds to the risk of landslides. In Langkawi yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad reportedly said, “Nak bawa pembangunan, kita kena kaji betul-betul. Jangan tebang pokok di kawasan bukit, nanti tinggi risiko tanah runtuh. (If you want to bring development, we have to carry out thorough studies. Don’t chop down trees in hilly areas; otherwise, the risk of landslides will be high.”)
If safety guidelines for hill-slope development are not being adhered to and if enforcement authorities are not functioning effectively, it becomes simply unethical to continue with hill-slope development because not taking steps to guarantee the safety of workers places their lives at risk. We cannot and must not do this.
Given this, Aliran calls for an immediate stop to hill-slope development projects, whether residential or infrastructural. All plans that involve construction or development on hill slopes must be reviewed for workers’ safety measures, mitigation measures to ensure stability of slopes, and environmental damage and impact.
While the harm done to the victims cannot be undone, Aliran calls for immediate and adequate support and compensation to those injured and to families of those killed in the landslide irrespective of the status of the workers ie documented or otherwise.
Aliran executive committee
21 October 2018