Hong Kong may have to import workers to build homes, Leung says

Local workforce could struggle to meet rising demand, Leung says, but unionists fear wages would be cut and call for more training

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 7:34am

The government will have to import foreign labour to build public housing if the construction industry's workforce proves too small to meet growing demand, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told lawmakers yesterday.

Leung faced the Legislative Council for a question and answer session the day after his policy address, after taking questions from radio listeners in the morning. He faced complaints both in Legco and from the public that he did too little to address pressing housing problems - despite announcing a swathe of new measures to increase land supply and build more public flats and subsidised homes.

Meanwhile, a University of Hong Kong poll found that the public gave Leung's maiden policy forum 56.4 out of a possible 100 marks, 10 points lower than Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's maiden policy blueprint in 2005. Leung's popularity rating increased by 3.3 points to 52.2.

With 12 per cent more of those polled expressing satisfaction with the speech than dissatisfaction, poll director Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu said: "Leung's address is already on steady ground [and] has had a positive effect on his popularity."

In Legco, Leung was asked by Vincent Fang Kang, lawmaker for the retail and wholesale sector, whether the government would consider importing foreign labour to help build public and subsidised homes.

"It is an objective fact that there is a shortage of construction workers in Hong Kong," Leung replied. "And it has caused delays and cost increases in some infrastructure projects, so we must first satisfy the employment needs of locals, and when the local workforce cannot support our development needs, we must consider importing workers."

But unionist lawmakers opposed the idea. Lee Cheuk-yan expressed concern that immigrant labour would reduce wages for locals, while Wong Kwok-hing of the Federation of Trade Unions said the government should train more local workers.

There were complaints from Democrat Emily Lau Wai-hing that Leung was delaying a consultation on universal suffrage, and from the FTU's Chan Yuen-han that Leung was backtracking on his election promise of laws for standard working hours. "Have you stepped back under business pressure, and don't care about workers' lives?"

She said that Leung had pledged before his election to create a committee to examine standard hours laws, but said in the policy speech that the committee would only "identify the way forward".

"It is the right thing to do," Leung said of his approach.

Lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung was expelled from the chamber for the second time in as many days after he tried to throw a copy of the policy speech at Leung.

Leung, speaking on a radio phone-in programme in the morning, said his address did not deviate from his earlier promise to increase the amount of public housing supplied during his term, as he expected the number of public flats built in the next five years to exceed the 75,000 he promised on Wednesday.

A caller asked Leung to stay in a subdivided flat for three days to gain first-hand experience of poor living conditions.

Leung's promise to look at extending the 12 years of free education to 15 by subsidising kindergartens was condemned by the Professional Teachers' Union. It said Leung had failed to heed parents and educators.