Are our tree specialists still up to the job?
A qualification used to hire tree specialists may no longer be worth the paper it's written on. That's because an Australian organisation on which the Hong Kong government relied to certify job applicants had the necessary skills went out of existence more than a year ago.
It was absorbed by another organisation, which offers memberships for sale without requiring proof of any training in arboriculture - the science of caring for trees - or horticulture.
Despite the change in July 2010, as late as last autumn the Hong Kong government ran job adverts accepting membership of the body - the National Arborists Association of Australia (NAAA) - as a qualification.
The government has long accepted membership of the NAAA as a qualification for would-be tree specialists, who earn up to HK$55,000 a month.
It has continued to use the qualification even though the Tree Management Office, which acts as a co-ordinator and government adviser on trees, said it was aware of the change in the NAAA's status.
It is unclear if anyone was hired using the fee-based membership.
'Paying for a membership is just like signing up a golf club when you might know nothing about playing golf,' said Cheung Siu-wing, chairman of the Leisure Services Staff General Union, a union for civil servants. 'The most important thing now is whether the government can verify if such a membership means anything any more.'
The problem is that the NAAA stopped functioning as an independent entity when it was absorbed by Arboriculture Australia.
Before the merger, the NAAA would grant membership only to applicants who could prove they had completed a relevant certificate course in horticulture or agriculture.
The combined group still issues memberships, but requires only the payment of a A$130 (HK$1,070) fee, according to NAAA's website.
The NAAA website was still operational earlier yesterday, but had by last night begun redirecting visitors to Arboriculture Australia's site.
Allen Lim, a landscape consultant who says he represents Arboriculture Australia in Hong Kong, said the group notified local authorities of the membership changes in January of last year, but received no response.
'The association and its general membership do not exist any longer,' Lim said. He could not explain why the website was still up.
NAAA membership was still being accepted as a qualification in October when the Leisure and Cultural Services Department conducted its last round of arborist hiring. The requirement was also listed in a recently awarded public works contract.
The Tree Management Office could not explain why the obsolete qualification was still listed, saying only that it recognised the association's general memberships issued up to the end of 2010.
The office would not accept memberships bought from Arboriculture Australia, a spokesman for the office said. Rather, the government would recognise only registered, practising or consulting arborists certified by the group. The Hong Kong government also endorses qualifications from Britain, the United States and Europe.
Professor Jim Chi-yung, a tree expert from the University of Hong Kong, said the confusion exposed a deeper problem of setting out the standards for tree-care practitioners in the city.
He said many so-called qualifications were actually not qualifications, but certification.
'There is too much confusion with so many different bodies and structures,' Jim said. 'Unlike the accounting profession, which has so many practitioners, the arborist profession is much smaller and there should be a unified standard locally.
'Why can't we have a unified one that focuses less on self-interest?'