Speedy resolution needed to lifeguard row

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am

Industrial action that affects public safety and convenience can sometimes get people hot under the collar. When it hits public swimming venues in the middle of a sweltering summer holiday it is bound to raise temperatures - as seen when angry bathers struck coins against metal railings outside the partly closed Kowloon Park swimming complex on Monday.

Lifeguards in dispute with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department can be pleased with the wide exposure that closures of beaches and pools have given to their grievances. But neither side should test public patience. People are entitled to expect some initiative that brings the parties to the table and keeps our swimming spots open. The issue that prompted the strike is the lifeguards' concern about job security and conditions in the face of government moves to outsource swimming pool management and services.

The lifeguards' union has made a bid for public support by tying the dispute to the issue of safety. Union vice-chairman Alex Kwok Siu-kit says outsourcing would undermine the experience and team spirit, built up over the years, that is vital if lifeguards are to provide quality services.

There is no doubt that where swimming pools are concerned, public safety must be the paramount consideration. But this would not necessarily be jeopardised by the outsourcing arrangements contemplated by the government. It all depends how they are implemented.

We are entitled to expect explicit, demonstrable assurances that safety will not be compromised by outsourcing. Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping has defended the move, describing it as effective and efficient. But there is a need for the question of safety to be dealt with specifically and in greater detail.

Special considerations apply where safety is an issue. The service offered by lifeguards cannot, for example, be compared to contracting out the cleaning of government property. But a comparison could be made, in terms of trust and reliability, to the Social Welfare Department contracting out home-help services for the elderly. The key issue is ensuring that standards are kept high.

Mr Ho gave an assurance that outsourcing would not affect existing staff. In fact, the LCSD says only 30 of 1,600 lifeguards' jobs have been outsourced so far. This suggests the government will still be setting the benchmark for beach and pool safety standards. It is reassuring, but we should be told more about how it would work.

The government is right to focus on achieving efficiencies and value for money in the delivery of services. There is room for further outsourcing of public services generally in order to streamline and modernise the civil service.

In the case of lifeguards, it wants to further reduce the amount it spends on salaries at Hong Kong's 68 public beaches and pools and has already moved to lower its reliance on lifeguards employed year-round. More are being hired on contracts lasting two to six months. This is an underlying source of dissatisfaction for lifeguards, as some were contracted at substantially reduced rates. But the outsourcing move is consistent with the policy of contracting out public facilities and services under the guiding principle of 'big market, small government'. And this is the right direction in which to move.

There is, however, a need to ensure that the government - and its contractors - are still held publicly accountable for the services they provide. Engaging the private sector to provide more services involves far more than just a cost-benefit analysis.

The dispute between lifeguards and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department is causing disruption at our beaches and pools for the second summer in a row. Both sides should work hard to resolve the row. But the result should not compromise safety standards - or stand in the way of efforts to make the provision of public services more efficient.