HK may allow hiring of foreign workers in construction

Leung assures locals of their jobs, but unionists say move will open floodgates to cheap foreign labour


HONG KONG - 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.

Background story

While there is an existing scheme that allows companies to import foreign workers if they can prove that 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.

Better-paid than office clerks

IN LAST year's Chinese New Year comedy flick All's Well, Ends Well 2012, popular Hong Kong actor Louis Koo plays an ambitious construction worker who eventually gets the photographer babe played by Kelly Chen.

That was the reel story.

The reality is just as telling: During lunchtime in restaurants in Hong Kong, construction workers in dusty boots are often the ones ordering expensive a la carte dishes, while white-collar workers go for the economical set meals.

The twin pictures indicate the class status of construction workers in Hong Kong relative to that in Singapore - they are highly skilled, very productive and richly compensated.

The industry is often held up as a role model for the one in Singapore. For instance, it takes four to six days to complete one storey in a typical high-rise building in Hong Kong. It takes eight to 12 days in Singapore.

The higher productivity is reflected in the higher wages: The average daily salary of a general labourer is HK$650 (S$103) a day, while a more specialised bar bender earns HK$1,360 (set to increase to HK$1,710 next year). A six-day work week would yield HK$41,040 a month, more than triple the HK$12,000 that a general office clerk earns and nearly double the HK$21,000 an accounting supervisor makes.

Construction labour cost in Hong Kong, which has 300,000 workers, is about five times that of Singapore's. But the industry faces challenges, with fewer younger Hong Kongers willing to toil in the hot sun. Only 14 per cent of the workers are in their 30s; most are over 50.