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12 Feb 2020

China Labour Bulletin (Hong Kong)

China: Concerns raised over construction workers' workload and health as cities rush to build hospitals for patients with novel coronavirus

“Construction workers under pressure as more cities rush to build hospitals”, 6 February 2020

Several Chinese cities including Zhengzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen have announced plans to build new hospitals in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan…

Just like the two new hospitals in Wuhan, the authorities hope to have these new facilities in place and operational in just over a week.

The speed with which the Huoshenshan (Fire God Mountain) Hospital on the outskirts of Wuhan was completed has earned praise from commentators both inside China and abroad. However, these ultra-high-speed projects have placed a massive strain on construction workers, both in terms of workload and health and safety.

At Huoshenshan, a crew of 7,000 worked around the clock to get the facility up and running by 4 February. Initially, there was not even a shift system in place and everyone worked constantly… Eventually, as more workers arrived, construction was organised in two shifts, with construction workers doing 12-hour shifts every day and administrative staff working even longer.

Many of the construction workers at Huoshenshan were rural migrants…

One labour contractor from Henan told Caixin that he could earn double his usual pay by working through the holiday. However, China’s Labour Law stipulates that labourers working on public holidays should be paid no less than 300 percent of their usual wage.

In addition to excessive working hours and underpayment, workers are also at greater risk of accidents and infection. On the eve of the hospital’s opening day, a dozen workers, equipped only with thin masks that offered little protection, could be seen fixing a leaking drainage pipe.

One 56-year-old construction worker who worked at Huoshenshan has already been confirmed as infected with the coronavirus… It is likely that more cases have gone unreported.

It is essential, as more cities plan high-speed construction projects that all construction workers are properly compensated and thoroughly protected from the risk of infection.

Moreover, the authorities must ensure that there are no cases of wage arrears arising from rushed hospital construction projects. Wage arrears are endemic in China’s construction industry and few government measures introduced so far have adequately addressed the problem.