Union alarm over unpaid wages

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 July, 2002, 12:00am

Complaints by construction workers over unpaid wages have surged in the past six months due to employers' recklessness in putting in low bids for projects, unionists claim.

To address the growing problem, representatives from the building industry and the labour department are due to meet this morning in Sheung Wan.

The meeting follows a clash at a Yau Tong work site last Friday between police and 40 interior decorators who were demanding what they claimed was HK$10 million in unpaid wages from their subcontractor employer.

The Construction Site Workers' General Union said yesterday it had dealt with more than 280 cases of subcontractors failing to pay their workers in the first half of this year, compared with 160 for the whole of 2001.

Of these, 78 cases involved 30 or more workers, three times as many as in the preceding six months. On average, incidents on such a scale happened at least twice a week.

The union said subcontractors owed about 3,000 workers an estimated $40 million in total.

Ng Yan-kwong, the union's secretary, blamed the rise on the economic slump, as many subcontractors submitted extremely low bids to win projects.

'As a result, there often comes a point when the subcontractors . . . cannot maintain the work's progress and they can only sacrifice workers' wages or do a runner,' he said.

'In some cases, the subcontractors are not in the construction business - they make a profit by selling the contract to others.'

The union said the Yau Tong incident on Friday demonstrated that the subcontracting system was in need of an overhaul.

At one point during the clash, a policewoman pulled out her gun to try to maintain order. Police arrested 23 workers, who were all released on bail. The union said it was disappointed that a government taskforce set up to review the industry, chaired by Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology Henry Tang Ying-yen, had failed to make any concrete proposals since it was formed last year.

'The government should bring in legislation to limit the level of subcontracting,' Mr Ng said.

'It should also consider implementing mandatory contractors' registration or at least a timetable for the introduction [of the scheme] as this is the only way to guarantee standards and cut down the number of dishonest contractors.'

The principal contractors should also make monthly checks with the subcontractors to ensure workers received their wages, the union said.

Ultimately, it added, the government should encourage public works contractors to hire workers on a long-term basis.