Garment industry needs imported labour

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 December, 1998, 12:00am

I refer to the article by Linda Yeung headlined, 'Patching up an ailing industry' (South China Morning Post, December 16).

The article reflects the common opinion that as at its peak the garment industry employed 270,000 workers, as opposed to around 45,000 now, then there should be a pool of 200,000 experienced garment workers available. So, ask some people, why is it that employers insist that there is a labour shortage and the problem can only be solved by importing labour? If one reads Ms Yeung's article more closely, one would note that all these experienced workers are in middle age.

One interviewee garment worker was as old as 60.

Garment sewing is a job which requires speed, dexterity and stamina. A garment sewer's active lifespan is like a professional athlete's. One cannot expect athletes to maintain their peak performance standards when they reach middle age and beyond.

Like any export industry, the garment industry is in competition with the best in the world. Hong Kong garment workers are competing against young and skilful workers in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines etc, who are paid a fraction of the wage rate of Hong Kong workers. With such stiff competition, the wages paid to garment workers cannot be increased indefinitely.

Those not in the trade need to know that the selling FOB (free-on-board) price of a garment has hardly moved in the last 10 years, due to low inflation in the US and European Union countries. The garment industry also faces difficulties in finding young people to train up as sewers.

With improved education standards, Hong Kong's young people aspire to become merchandisers, sales personnel or administrators, and rightly so.

The present situation is like asking the Hong Kong garment industry to compete in the 2000 Olympics, fielding a 1972 Olympic team.

For the industry to have a chance to survive, a more workable solution would be to allow garment factories to import some workers.

At the same time, these factories would be required to guarantee to the Government, that existing workers' jobs would not be jeopardised and their pay would not be lowered.

On top of that, for each worker imported, one new Hong Kong person would need to be hired within the organisation.

The urgency of allowing the importing of garment workers cannot be over-emphasised.

At present, due to the shortage of workers, many garment factories have opted for the illegal 'trans-shipment' route. This is a very dangerous practice, which could bring down the whole of the Hong Kong textile industry. This practice must be stopped immediately by the Government taking stringent action to catch the 'trans-shippers'. While the Government must catch these criminals, it must also make it possible for the garment factories to 'go straight', by allowing them to import labour.

ALEX WOO Chairman Central Textiles