Labouring over jobs
AS the number of jobless continues to climb towards the emotive 100,000 mark, with no sign of a respite in sight, it is time for local employers to brace themselves for the scaling-back, or possible scrapping, of the labour importation scheme.
Already, Government economist Tang Kwong-yiu has dropped a strong hint of the way official minds are moving, by blaming the latest increase on an excess supply of labour. Since imported workers are the one area of the labour market whose numbers the Government can easily control, the conclusion is obvious: the review now underway of the scheme - that provides for the importation of up to 25,000 mainly semi-skilled workers - can be expected to recommend it must be, at the very least, drastically modified: probably in time for Governor Chris Patten to announce this in his October 11 policy address.
That is not to say imported labour is to blame for the present unemployment problems: the link between the two is tenuous at best, especially since no new workers have been allowed in under the scheme for the past year. Instead, the real cause is more likely to lie in a combination of Hong Kong's continuing economic restructuring and the spill-over effect of a slowdown in the growth rate across the border.
But, in the midst of an election campaign, political perceptions count for more than economic realities. Few, if any, Legislative Council candidates will be foolhardy enough to propose that those whose votes they are trying to solicit should have to compete with imported workers for their jobs. Instead, even industrialist candidates, such as businessman Ho Sai-chu, have included a cut in the imported labour quota in their election platforms.
The Government must be aware that if they do not take their own steps to curtail the scheme then the new Legco will simply scrap it unilaterally. Legislators came within seven votes of effectively doing so last February and, after the September 17 polls, an alliance of democrats and pro-China members will almost certainly command enough votes to push through such a measure.
So it is high time for the business community to begin seriously considering how they can cope without so many imported workers. Employers who have become accustomed to relying on foreign labour to fill their vacancies are going to have to put more effort into finding locals with the right skills. In some cases that may mean retraining them, something the Government has already begun to do, but which the private sector has yet to widely emulate. It will not be an easy process for local industry to adjust - but that is all the most reason for them to begin preparing for it now.