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Hong Kong may allow hiring of foreign construction workers

Publication Date : 24-01-2013


Hong Kong has long locked its gates against foreign manual workers. But now, it may import them to help speed up the construction of much-needed housing.

Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying has floated the controversial idea of liberalising rules that bar construction companies from hiring foreign workers, saying "it is an objective fact" that there is a shortage of construction workers.

This, he said, has "caused delays and cost increases in some infrastructure projects".

But he stressed that local workers' employment and wages would not be affected. "I think we need to let all local construction workers take up those jobs first.

"If the number of local workers cannot meet the demand, it may be necessary for us to consider importing foreign labour," he said last Thursday, a day after his policy address, during which he laid out ambitious plans to increase the supply of homes.

Despite the reassurance, Leung's suggestion, unsurprisingly, met with opposition from unionists, who say such a move would open the floodgates to cheap foreign labour, including workers from the mainland.

About 50 construction workers took to the streets on Sunday to protest against the suggestion.

While there is an existing scheme that allows companies to import foreign workers if they can prove they cannot find locals, approval is granted very rarely. Employers in the construction industry were allowed to import only seven, one and 14 workers respectively in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Unionists acknowledge that there is a shortage of workers, especially those skilled in specialised tasks such as bar bending, which involves using machines to shape bars that reinforce concrete.

These skilled workers make up a third of the 300,000-strong construction labour force. It is estimated that the industry is short of 8,000 to 9,000 of such workers, leading to poaching among companies.

But there are sufficient general workers, argued Mak Tak Ching, organising secretary of the Construction Site Workers General Union.

He told The Straits Times that the problem is a "mismatch" of labour. "These general workers have the potential for their skills to be upgraded and become specialised workers. Why not focus on training schemes for them?"

He said the current schemes are full-day programmes that last 90 days. "Few workers want to give up their wages for such a long time," he said, adding that shorter, part-time schemes should be designed.

He also suggested that more be done to attract younger, ambitious Hong Kongers to work in construction by establishing standard wage levels for each speciality and setting out clear career prospects within the industry.

The statutory Construction Industry Council said it is "working closely with the industry to meet the demand within the next six months". The shortage "can be tackled by attracting new entrants in Hong Kong through enhancing training and subsidies", it told The Straits Times.

But such measures are an inadequate bulwark against the more fundamental changing social mores in Hong Kong, where young people prefer to work in the office even if the pay is lower, said veteran construction foreman Tsui Fai, 39.

In his team, one in 10 workers is of ethnic minority origin - those from Pakistan and India who have gained Hong Kong permanent residency. This is higher than the 6.4 per cent they represent in the population.

Already, Hong Kong's construction workers are paid more than most office workers (see sidebar). Just three months ago, they received pay rises of between 5.3 and 30 per cent.

The reason can be glimpsed in the feverish construction across Hong Kong. Mega infrastructure projects such as the West Kowloon Cultural District and new MTR lines are coming up. Adding to the dust would be the 142,000 new homes Leung promised would be available by 2017.

Donald Choi, managing director of property developer Nan Fung Development, told The Straits Times that delays in construction due to insufficient skilled labour are common.

For instance, one of his company's residential projects in the New Territories is now being pushed back by a few months because of the lack of masons.

He argued that a calibrated opening of the market - for instance, via quotas and for limited periods - for specific skill sets would have little impact on the local workforce.

"The shortage is a problem that is not going away in the near future," he said.


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