Dockyard eyes big ships with expansion plan

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2011, 12:00am


Hongkong United Dockyards is seeking to double the size of its dry dock complex at Tsing Yi with the addition of a second floating ship repair dock capable of handling the largest container ships afloat.

But the company, a 50-50 joint venture between Swire Pacific and Hutchison Whampoa, also wants to be allowed to import mainland shipyard workers to help overcome a shortage of skilled Hong Kong workers while it trains its own recruits.

HUD managing director Lung Chi-kok said the new dock would require between 300 and 500 skilled workers and would double the number of existing ship repair personnel. He hoped that all of these would be for local crafts people, but the company had also urged the Immigration Department to allow it to import workers from the mainland.

He said if the company was unable to get the 500 workers 'we will be in quite a serious problem'.

Lionel Krieger, project director for the second repair dock, said that while the multimillion-dollar investment in the second dock required board approval, a second dock was crucial if the company was to survive.

'Vessels are getting larger and larger. What was yesterday's very large container ship is today's feeder ship. It is up to us to maintain a level of expertise. We need to get a bigger dock otherwise we can't accommodate a ship owner's vessels,' he said.

The existing dock can handle ships up to 300 metres long and 40 metres wide, equivalent to container ships of around 6,500 teu (20-foot equivalent units).

But Iris Kwan, HUD general manager for finance, said 22 per cent of the container ships now in the global fleet were 7,000 teu and larger. 'Two out of 10 ships we cannot serve,' she said. These included the 18,000 teu container ships recently order by Maersk Line that will enter service on Asia-Europe routes including Hong Kong from 2013. Lung estimated HUD was losing about 10 ships a year because it was unable to repair larger vessels. The existing dock, which nestles in the shadow of the Tsing Ma bridge, is capable of repairing 35-40 ships a year, while a typical docking lasts up to about 10 days.

Krieger said having a repair yard 'five minutes sailing from Kwai Chung' was part of Hong Kong's critical mass as one of the world's leading ports. He said it was also important to have a repair yard with the development of the Kai Tak cruise terminal.

Fabrication yards, including Shanghai's Huarun Dadong Dockyard, will be invited to tender for the construction of the second dock which could be in operation in 2013.

Krieger said an environmental impact assessment would have to be carried out and approved to ensure the second dock complied with environment legislation.

Lung remained optimistic about business prospects this year and explained that as shipowners returned to profitability last year they were again spending money on ship maintenance and repair.

Turning to labour issues, Lung said the company had lobbied the government-backed Maritime Industry Council, transport sector legislator Miriam Lau Kin-yee and Doris Cheung Mei-chu, a deputy secretary at the Transport and Housing Bureau who has responsibility for the maritime sector, to import foreign workers. He said the company was recently allowed to bring in 40 workers from Singapore to work on a specific short-term ship repair project. But HUD needed to import workers on a longer contract basis from the mainland to overcome the shortfall in staff, although the firm's approaches for help, including from the Immigration Department, had failed. This was despite the company paying HK$12,000 per month plus housing and other benefits.

HUD will take about 40 apprentices this year from the Vocational Training Council, backed by support from a HK$2,000 a month government's training subsidy for each trainee. But the company, with its strong focus on welding and electrical and mechanical engineering, was competing with organisations such as the MTR Corporation and Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering for trainees and skilled staff.

Room to move

HUD's facility can handle ships equal to 6,500 teu but the proportion of the global fleet 7,000 teu and larger is: 22%