Airport row sparks new boycott fear

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 March, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 March, 1993, 12:00am

AIRPORT development officials are ''unethical, paranoid and rude'', say contractors involved in a row over contract conditions of three Airport Core Projects (ACPs).

The Hongkong Construction Association, which represents several hundred local and international contractors, is furious over a Government proposal to change the contract conditions of two multi-billion-dollar ACPs after the tenders had been submitted, and over a proposal to make fundamental changes to the third project.

The association claims the move is a repetition of what the Provisional Airport Authority (PAA) wanted to impose on consulting engineers two months ago, causing them to hold back on airport bids.

The row between the PAA and the Association of Consulting Engineers of Hongkong, which has since been resolved, is said to be a major cause for the sudden departure of former PAA chief executive Mr Richard Allen.

Yesterday, a construction association spokesman said contractors were seeking legal advice and planned to resist what members considered to be unfair changes.

The contracts in dispute include the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation, the Route 3 Kwai Chung Viaduct and the Rambler Channel Bridge projects.

The three are estimated to cost more than $3.7 billion and form part of the Airport Core Programme.

ACP insiders say the latest dispute will cast further doubt on the troubled Chek Lap Kok airport as the momentum of the contracts throughout the Airport Core Programme had always been viewed as one way to keep up the level of confidence.

The bone of contention with contractors is an alleged attempt by the Government to ''force contractors to pay for mistakes made by consultant engineers who design the projects for the Government''.

''The conditions basically said any items that are omitted or wrongly described will be the contractors' responsibility, and should be included in the price,'' said the spokesman.

''It means if consultants made any mistakes while producing drawings and specifications, the contractors would not be paid to fix those mistakes.'' He described the move as ''unprincipled, highly unfair, and quite horrifying''.

A contractor said: ''It is like a client had mistakenly told us he wanted two plywood doors in his house, when in fact he wanted solid gold doors.

''Under the old conditions, if he described the doors wrongly he would have to pay for his mistake. Now with the new conditions, he would have his solid gold doors at plywood door prices,'' he said.

Contractors are also unhappy proposals to change contract conditions in two projects came only after tenders had been submitted.

''If we knew in the beginning we would have checked everything in greater detail. Now we have missed out on that,'' said the spokesman.

Contractors said the Government ''had always been paranoid over costs'' but this time they were ''going over the top''.

''We understand the Government's concern with costs. What we don't agree with is the method of achieving it. We think they are going way too far,'' he said.

In one case, letters from the Highways Department were sent to the three lowest bidders of the Kwai Chung Viaduct on March 10, notifying them of the proposed changes, and seeking a reply on or before last Friday.

''I would say it is a bit rude'' to give contractors only two days to reply, said the spokesman.

He said contractors directly affected by the proposed changes were scheduled to meet on Tuesday.

There are doubts, however, over whether the contractors will present a similar united front as the consulting engineers in fighting ''unfair conditions'', as it is a fact they are ''starved for work'' due to Government underspending on public works.

''Small and medium contractors are starving to death . . . I hope we are going to get agreement from all members that we will not accept the changes,'' said a contractor.

A spokesman for the New Airport Projects Co-ordination Office (NAPCO), Mr Paul Brown, said the exercise was purely an attempt to remove doubts.

''It is our feeling that in any contracts there should not be any grey areas. There is no intention on the part of Government to put any added risks or burden on the contractors.'' He also said the Government was ready to take the matter up once contractors had submitted their replies.

''In any case the Government has fairly regular meetings and liaisons with the association and we will address any sort of concern it chooses to raise,'' he said.