Sunday construction reflects confused priorities

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the puzzling environment we find ourselves in amid the state of emergency than the story on the front page of Monday’s newspaper (“Unauthorised work on Sunday”.)

Samoa appeared confused about how to abide by days-old amendments to the state of emergency on Sunday, including the banning of cake shop openings and swimming.

But businesses without exception closed their doors on Sunday morning in due deference to the law and state of emergency orders. Except for one.

Supermarkets, apparently forced to open only for three hours in the evening for reasons of social distancing, were full-to-overflowing the night before in what seemed like an entirely self-defeating regulation. 

Typical Sunday morning shopping for fish for Sunday to'onai was halted, again, either depriving the nation’s fishermen of their most lucrative day of trading or prompting another Saturday crush. 

But amongst this perplexing state of affairs about new regulations passed that week, we saw on full display in Moto’otua the breaking of one of this country’s oldest laws and traditions with apparent impunity: a ban on construction work on Sundays. 

Nails hammering resounded around the neighbourhood and several of the estimated 10 workers at the site admitted to this newspaper that they were treating Sunday as a regular working day. 

The manager of the Zheng Construction Company, which is building a private 20-room hotel project on the site, Peizheng Wang, previously said that workers were only on site for the purposes of cleaning or because they worked for free.

But on Tuesday he apologised for the actions of his employees, whom he said had been living on the site and initially intended only to clear the area and that he had no idea about their being witnessed mixing concrete on the site on the day in question. 

“I do apologise for what had happened and I will make sure that our workers do not do anymore work on Sundays.”

Mr. Wang also confirmed that his company does not have consent to do work on Sunday. He added that the Planning and Urban Management Agency (P.U.M.A.) has contacted him to write a report concerning his company’s work on Sunday last week.

The question, of course, of whether to allow workers, foreign or otherwise, to labour on a day of worship and rest has been raised repeatedly in recent years. 

It became an issue at the last general election, where the Tautua Samoa party pledged to put a stop to foreign contractors working on Sunday to reassert what has been the law of the land in this country since the 19th Century.

No law was passed to outlaw projects that fit these very particular circumstances from working on Sunday. 

Foreign construction projects, funded by foreign capital and employing foreign labour, it was previously reasoned, did not need to be subject to local restrictions on development consents.

But it must be made painfully clear there is no such exemption for Zheng Construction.

The company has been incorporated locally and it has been engaged to work on a local privately-owned three storey hotel project. 

Having been incorporated in 2012, it is unlikely to be unfamiliar with Samoan labour law. It has even recently worked with the Government itself, winning a contract to build the National Emergency Operations Centre in 2019.

As Mr. Wang himself says: “We have been working in Samoa for the last seven years and have become Samoans ourselves”. 

The results of an investigation by the Ministry of Works, Transport and Infrastructure are ongoing; we do not know whether a penalty will be imposed for this behaviour.

But how it came to pass that Zheng Construction felt comfortable operating with such an open disregard for the law raises questions about warped Governmental priorities. 

Ordinary people have borne the brunt of either the real or threatened enforcement of recently passed state of emergency laws.

Some 300 have had compliance enforced upon them with Police fines and arrests following the breaking of state emergency restrictions.

But overwhelmingly the community has done a laudable job of self-regulating and adhering to the Government’s regulations even as they change with increasing frequency, 

These people include hardworking fishermen such as Alesana Tauese, who was dismayed to learn last Friday of the closing of the Sunday fish market and the best day for selling his catch.

In the main people who have been affected by the state of emergency orders have accepted them with a humble bearing. 

Even the Samoa Hoteliers Association, the organisation unquestionably hit the hardest by the closure of the nation’s borders has accepted these restrictions with equanimity.

That organisation’s President, Tupa’i Saleimoa Va’ai, said that the health of the nation comes before the economic devastation wreaked upon his industry, which has had to lay off 80 per cent of its staff. 

Sunday’s display by Zheng Construction is remarkable, then, not only for its blatancy but what it says about our priorities. 

At a time when the preservation of Samoa’s culture and traditions is being debated, with the Land and Titles Court Bill currently before Parliament styled by advocates as a necessary means of preserving the fa'a Samoa. 

But were it not for the intervention of this newspaper, a most flagrant flouting of one of this country’s core traditions would apparently have gone unpunished. 

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