Kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2005, 12:00am

Magically, it happens every summer. The temperature soars, the sun shines, the seas sparkle and people are eager to plunge into a pool. Then the lifeguards threaten to strike.

Want to go for a swim on Friday? Have a shower, instead, because the burly, sun-bronzed lifesavers may well opt to take the day off in protest.

Their target may be government officials they claim - on most dubious grounds - are being unfair. But it's the public who suffers.

In my next reincarnation, I want to come back to life as a Hong Kong lifeguard. It's a pretty good existence. You get to laze about in a beach pavilion with your pals ogling pretty girls and wondering what's cooking for lunch. For this, you get paid up to $14,330 a month.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department employs 1,694 lifeguards at 36 swimming pools and 32 beaches. That seems sufficient to save every swimmer in the South China Sea.

Part of the reason for the annual industrial squabbling is the plethora of different grades and agreements under which they are employed. There are 546 permanent lifeguards and 366 on differing contracts. Then there are 782 seasonal lifeguards.

Pay scales vary from $14,330 down to $9,360. Some get 31 days' holiday a year and others get 12 days.

Any human resources expert will tell you that having people doing the same job on different pay and holiday deals is a recipe for trouble. There's certainly plenty of that. And the muscular guardians of the sands usually seem to get their way.

In 2003 the government planned to contract out the management of eight swimming pools. No way, insisted the trade unionists in swimming costumes.

They threatened to strike. The government backed down, a major strategic error.

What particularly irks me about these sun-tanned activists is the spurious and self-serving claims they make. Oh dear, they said in 2003. If new management in the privatised pools are inexperienced and want to cut costs to increase profits, then the safety of swimmers might be endangered.

Do you think that was their prime motivation? Of course not. They were concerned solely with protecting their patch and preserving their pleasant jobs and very reasonable salaries.

Let's be fair. A corps of well-trained, well-paid and highly motivated lifeguards is needed at our beaches and swimming pools. By and large they are a friendly bunch and they do a good job.

A time and motion expert might think there are far too many of them; go to any gazetted beach and you will find one or two manning the lookout posts and a half dozen sitting in the shade.

But the Leisure and Cultural Services Department can't take risks with people's lives. If it declares a gazetted beach is a place to swim safely, then it has to provide sufficient trained staff to save lives if people get into trouble.

At swimming pools, guards must be on hand to respond instantly in case of emergency.

But the bosses of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Lifeguards' Union do little to present its membership as reasonable and responsible people with public welfare as their first priority.

The crux of the 2003 debate was, as usual, money. Most lifeguards at that time got about $10,000 a month. The government pay cuts reduced this to $8,300.

Then the government wanted to privatise management of eight pools that employed a total of 400 guards. At 50 guards per pool, that seems a surplus of staff.

The union was worried numbers would be cut. So they threatened to strike if the plan went ahead. The proposal was scrapped; 300 lifeguards went on a harbour swim to mark their victory.

The following year, again at the height of summer, of course, hundreds of lifeguards threatened to boycott work unless pay demands were met.

Ironically, the lifeguards who were depriving people of the weekend pleasure of going to the beach decided to spend their no-work day at Repulse Bay beach. Did they not realise how foolish and selfish this made them appear?

A very different organisation is the Hong Kong Life Saving Society, a voluntary body that provides lessons and qualifications. It's chairman, Anthony Chan Wai-lun, says he is sympathetic to the union but is opposed to them going on strike.

So am I. There must surely be some sane way to approach the situation. LCSD officials seem to have made every possible concession to the lifeguards, who are hell-bent on confrontation.

Perhaps they've had a touch of the sun.