Singapore model on cross-border labour worth pursuing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 3:42am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 3:42am

Opposition to importing foreign workers is to be expected in a city where pro-labour politicians have become increasingly vocal. As soon as the government raised the issue in the context of enhancing the workforce and population, trade unionists were up in arms. While they are understandably worried about job prospects for local workers, it does not mean the issue should not be broached. If some sectors have genuine difficulty in recruitment, importation can be the solution.

The debate was fired up by a former Singapore official, who said the city-state's success in using Malaysian workers could be replicated in Hong Kong with mainlanders. In an interview with this newspaper, Singapore's former director of population planning Paul Cheung argued that the issue should be seen as talent flow rather than labour importation. Citing the 150,000 Malaysians crossing the border to work in Singapore every day as an example, he said Hong Kong could open the door to Pearl River Delta workers over the next 30 years. That would address the city's shrinking workforce without putting pressure on housing, he said.

Suggestions of new ways to bring in foreign workers are to be welcomed. There is no reason why they cannot be fully debated in society. Their merits and drawbacks should be thoroughly examined. But as Cheung rightly advised, Hong Kong should be mindful of the local reaction and avoid opening the gate "too fast and too wide".

Although there are concerns that the city is already overrun by tens of millions of tourists, the majority of whom are mainlanders, the idea of opening the door to workers in the delta region is different. The latter just travel back and forth for work on a daily basis. They will return to their hometown every night. There will be no question of the city becoming overloaded.

Vacancies in some sectors range from 18 to 74 per cent, according to government figures. It is no longer "yes" or "no", but how to make our importation system more effective without jeopardising the interests of local workers. Now that the five-month consultation on population policy is over, we trust the government is in a better position to release more concrete details. The suggestion by Cheung should be included for discussion. It is in the city's interest to fully debate the pros and cons and decide the best way forward.