A dead hobby horse

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 March, 2009, 12:00am

The financial tsunami has swept across the globe, sparing no one in its path. Every economy is still being battered; Hong Kong is no exception. In his policy address last year, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen pledged that the government would throw its support behind the financial sector as well as the business community and would do its utmost to create and protect employment. To fulfil that promise, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, in last month's budget address, earmarked HK$140 million to subsidise the hiring of university graduates by companies as interns for between six and 12 months, on a guaranteed salary of no less than HK$4,000.

The internship scheme, for some 4,000 university students who graduate this summer, will provide a monthly subsidy of HK$2,000 to local employers for every intern they hire, or HK$3,000 for those working on the mainland. Strictly speaking, it is not a job-creation scheme, but a way to provide training opportunities for fresh graduates and ease the tensions in a shrunken labour market.

The internships allow newcomers to learn first-hand the tasks and techniques to prepare for the future, as well as being a natural part of career development. Once equipped with the skills and experience, these interns will be more employable.

However, cynics seem to have ignored the true merits and value of the scheme and claimed that it's a ploy to exploit graduates and provide cheap labour for employers.

It's understandable why unionist legislator Lee Cheuk-yan and the League of Social Democrats have bashed the scheme. These labour representatives are concerned that the scheme would set an unfair minimum-wage benchmark for graduates in future. But it's bewildering to see legislator Lam Tai-fai, who represents the industrial sector and the Chinese Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong, jump on the bandwagon.

He warned that the scheme would provide a means for the government to massage the unemployment figures. He said it was an insult to university graduates, and offered no immediate relief for the ailing job market or help for the graduates. And, in the long run, it would be a serious drain on public coffers.

His criticism was baffling. No wonder, then, that rumours circulated in the political arena of an ulterior motive behind the comments.

Alex Fong Chi-wai, chief executive of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, supports the scheme and urged the government to launch it as soon as possible to help relieve unemployment pressure. He openly rejected Mr Lam's remarks that the HK$4,000 'wage' is an insult to graduates and a waste of time and money.

Could Mr Lam be speaking on behalf of the Chinese Manufacturers' Association? And does that mean all its members are willing to offer our graduates a much more competitive wage?

Many of us were trainees or interns when we first entered the labour market. Mr Lam is no exception. To help jog his memory, let's take a closer look at an interview he gave to the Hong Kong Economic Journal last month.

Mr Lam said, in the article, that he would always give his best in any job and described diligence and loyalty as some of the most important qualities in a person. He confessed that when he was working for wine connoisseur Henry Tang Ying-yen, now chief secretary, right after graduation from university many years ago, he volunteered to help his boss label his vintage wine collection. And, in order to enhance his knowledge on wine, he spent almost all of his HK$3,000 monthly salary on a wine course. So what has happened to that proactive and progressive young professional?

Mr Lam should try to see that the primary objective of the internship programme is to give graduates a chance to gain valuable work experience and to broaden their horizons. It certainly has long-term benefits.

We should all learn to be flexible and adaptable during tough times. As the Chinese saying goes: 'If the horse has died, dismount and move on.' It's about overcoming difficult times for a better tomorrow; Mr Lam is certainly no rookie to that philosophy.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator