Imported workers scheme put on hold as slump bites

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 February, 1998, 12:00am

Plans to import labour to work on Tung Chee-hwa's ambitious infrastructure projects have been deferred pending a review of economic and market conditions.


Announcing the Executive Council decision yesterday, Secretary for Education and Manpower Joseph Wong Wing-ping said there was no urgency to launch the scheme next month.


Asked for a new date for implementing the controversial scheme, he said: 'We will monitor the situation and review the matter at an appropriate time.' The Construction Labour Importation Scheme, lifting limits on the number of workers who can be brought in, was proposed in December amid projections of a shortfall of 21,000 building staff in the next three years.


Mr Wong said the change of heart followed analysis of economic and labour conditions.


'Construction in the private sector has slowed recently and we are uncertain about the changes in the labour market over the next few months,' he said. 'It remains our policy to give local workers priority when filling local jobs.' Sources said Executive Councillors were given the latest labour figures to justify the deferral and that discussions were 'heated'.


A three to six-month review period was reportedly suggested but officials refused to confirm this. Mr Wong maintained a flexible and quick importation mechanism was necessary to realise the massive public housing and infrastructure development projects planned by Mr Tung.


A government spokesman said the delay would not affect Mr Tung's commitments.


In the meantime, a limited number of overseas construction workers are still allowed in under the Supplementary Labour Importation Scheme introduced by the pre-handover administration.


However, unions last night criticised the move for not going far enough, while employers were disappointed by what they feared could an indefinite deferral.


Confederation of Trade Unions secretary-general Lee Cheuk-yan said the scheme should be scrapped, not just delayed.


Any shortfall in construction workers should be covered by the retraining of people made redundant in other sectors, he said.


The Hong Kong Construction Association warned of 'slippage' in Mr Tung's housing target of 85,000 new flats a year.


'The delay may lead to a serious labour shortage,' said association secretary-general Patrick Chan Wing-tung.


He argued that the mechanism should be put in place as scheduled so that employers could decide for themselves whether they needed to import workers.