Hong Kong is busy with infrastructure development, but its construction industry is facing acute manpower shortage. Measures so far taken by the government and the industry are far from adequate. As a last resort, a simple yet efficient labour import mechanism is necessary to ensure the on-schedule completion of various public housing and infrastructure development projects.
An adequate supply of construction workers is a must for carrying out multiple large-scale construction works on schedule. If not, work progress will probably see delays which mean spiraling construction costs. Lately, Hong Kong has many major projects delaying or running behind schedule, subsequently leading to huge amounts of public money wasted. Yet, these delay cases are probably just a tip of the iceberg. Hong Kong is in dire need of finding an effective way of ensuring the on-schedule completion of its infrastructure works.
Hong Kong has now entered the peak period for infrastructure development. The Government is going to accelerate construction of substantial public housing and speed up urban renewal development and urban revitalization. Public spending on infrastructure projects in this year, totalling $70 billion, has tripled from that a decade ago. Private property development too will mushroom in the next few years. This, coupled with the large-scale infrastructure works underway, is likely to overload the construction workforce.
Acute Shortage of Construction Manpower
Many sectors in Hong Kong, including retail, catering and elderly care, are grappling with the problem of manpower shortage. The construction industry is the sector suffering most. According to the Government’s Consultation Document on Population Policy, the current vacancy rate in the construction industry is as high as 74%; furthermore, data of the Hong Kong Construction Association indicates that the sector has suffered from a sustained shortage of more than 10,000 skilled workers. With the current virtually full employment in Hong Kong, it is apparently undesirable to poach workers from other sectors to meet the manpower demand of housing development and infrastructure projects in straitened circumstances of acute manpower shortage.
Undeniably, the Government and the trade have taken many measures to alleviate the labour shortage by upgrading technologies to reduce labour requirement in works. Wages have been much increased in the construction industry to retain workers and attract more young people to join the trade. Yet, all these remedies are merely a drop in the bucket.
Ageing Population and Insufficient New Blood
Exacerbating the situation is that ageing population in Hong Kong aggravates the labour supply shortage in construction industry. Nearly 40% of construction site workers in the territory are in their 50’s and their productivity is declining. Despite continued wage hikes in recent years, young newcomers are relatively few. The better-educated youth today prefer white-collar posts to manual work. There are a total of 350 civil engineering students graduating from three local universities every year. Still, this new blood cannot cope with the construction industry’s manpower shortage, not to mention the fact that new recruits need training and on-the-job practice before they can work independently.
For expediency, the business sector has taken a “hire first, train later” approach in recent years. Yet, it is ineffective as most of the workers are semi-skilled labour. Obviously, enhancing the quality and quantity of local manpower is too slow a remedy to meet the urgency. As a last resort, foreign labour should be suitably imported in a targeted manner to meet the pressing need.
No More Conservative in Labor Import Policies
In addressing the issue of inadequate manpower, many countries across the globe have allowed higher mobility of working population to enhance economic development and competitiveness. Free trade areas like European Union and ASEAN have relaxed their labour mobility mechanisms to boost economic strength. The sustained rapid economic growth of Singapore in recent years is a telling example which attributes its flying colours to a relatively abundant workforce, one third of which is supplied by additional workers under a well-defined labour import scheme in place in the country for ten years.
By contrast, Hong Kong’s policy on labour import is very conservative and complacent. Excluding foreign domestic helpers, there are fewer than 2,500 overseas workers in Hong Kong, who represent about 0.1% of the local workforce.
To resolve the problem of manpower shortage particularly the construction industry, Hong Kong should no longer be a stick-in-the-mud and should adapt flexibly to circumstances. Provided that the interests of local workers are well protected, labour should be suitably imported in targeted and well-defined terms without delay. Otherwise, the majority of housing and infrastructure development projects will fail to meet progress and completion schedule. Any procrastination and delay in the projects will not only hurt Hong Kong’s overall interests but bring negative impacts on the local economy, people’s livelihood and social development.
A Simple, Efficient Labor Import Mechanism
It is imperative to deliver good work with effective tools. However, the local community is divergent and divided on labour importation particularly among lawmakers in the Legislative Council. This is also prevalent in business community and other sectors in society. I believe only by launching a simple yet efficient labour supply mechanism can instill the nutrients for businesses to act flexibly and promptly control production costs and thus enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness.
It is high time for the Government to expand the current Supplementary Labour Scheme, under which requires the scrutiny and approval of the Labour Advisory Board. The import quota for individual sectors should be increased according to corresponding demand. Moreover, the application process should be simplified, speeded up, accommodative to businesses and the public. Loopholes in the current stringent procedures should be plugged by streamlining and scrapping redundant procedures or to sharply cut the processing time required by cutting from three months to six months.
The plight of the construction industry is only a reflection of Hong Kong’s pressing manpower shortage problem. It is compelling to find a permanent cure by revamping the current manpower supply and demand of various industries and making timely assessments of foreign labour. Only by making suitable arrangements promptly or in phases can steer Hong Kong’s development away from a mismatch, a standstill or even a mess. I hope that the Government and various parties can sit together to discuss how to resolve the manpower shortage problem with a more understanding and accommodating attitude. Ways should be explored, before it is too late, to optimise and scale up the existing labour import mechanism without bringing the interests of local workers into peril.
Address : Rm 703, Legislative Council Complex, 1 Legislative Council Road, Central, Hong Kong Tel : 2576-7121
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