Import more workers to ease the labour crunch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 4:21am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 4:21am

Manpower shortages have long been an issue of concern in Hong Kong. Rapid economic development and changing demographics mean there is growing pressure to find the right person for the job. In February, the financial chief warned that a labour shortage in the construction industry would affect the delivery of infrastructure projects. The prospects in the long-run are not promising either. As the population ages and the workforce shrinks, a sustainable manpower supply for future development will become a big problem. The need for short- and long-term strategies to address the challenge is evident.

It is good that some progress has been made. To fast-track the importation of labour for public works projects, the Labour Advisory Board has accepted a new government initiative that will help streamline the application process. A new task force will be set up under the Development Bureau to screen applications for bar-bending workers and 25 other types of job. While approvals will continue to be jointly made by employer and worker representatives of the board, the process is to be shortened from about eight months to six.

The move is a step in the right direction. It speeds up the process without compromising the standing approval mechanism. The labour representatives on the board will continue to have a say on whether importing workers to do these jobs is justified or not.

However, the enhanced procedure is still a concern to unions not represented on the board. They warn that it may open the floodgates and drive down wages for locals. While their worries should not be brushed aside, an alarmist view does not help. It should be noted that the board has been playing a good gate-keeping role over past decades. As long as vigilance is maintained, abuse should not be a problem.

Whether the latest change can sufficiently meet industry needs should be closely monitored. It only allows workers to come in quicker without opening the door wider. It is estimated that there will be a shortage of about 10,000 construction workers in the next few years. Further relaxation should be considered if the manpower crunch continues. The shortage in other sectors should also be addressed.

Sustainable manpower supply and competitiveness go hand in hand. If demand cannot be met internally, importing labour is the answer.