South Africa: Building collapse kills 34 workers, unions call for accountability and better OHS


Last 6 May 2024, a five-story building under construction in George, South Africa, collapsed. It was reported that 81 workers (90 percent of whom were foreign nationals) were onsite at the time. As of 14 May, the death toll numbered 34, with 13 hospitalised, and another 20 still missing. Authorities continue to search for the missing workers and investigate the causes of the collapse.

In the same week, a shop wall reportedly collapsed in Ngcobo, Eastern Cape, killing four people. The accident left 5 people dead and 14 people injured, including a nine-year old who is still in intensive care.

The month of May is marked  to commemorate "construction catastrophes.” BWI-affiliated trade unions in the region raised the alarm on the said incidents, highlighting the dire consequences of inadequate infrastructure maintenance and poor construction practices. Not only do these incidents result in the tragic and negligent loss of life, but they also have significant implications for the construction sector and the economy. They said that each collapse represents not just a structural failure, but also a failure to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of those involved in the construction process. Families lose breadwinners, communities lose members, the nation loses valuable contributors to its workforce, and the industry's ability to deliver safe and reliable infrastructure is left in doubt.

The George building collapse, tragic as it was, must not be swept under the rug. Trade unions must highlight poor regulatory enforcement, substandard materials, inadequate supervision, undocumented and/or exploited migrant workers, and a lack of skilled labour. It presents an opportunity to scrutinise and strengthen regulations; lobby investors and the state to train and educate workers; hold stakeholders accountable for their actions and impose severe penalties for occupational health and safety (OHS) violations; promote ethical business practices; and importantly, push for a George-based bargaining council.