Hong Kong commerce chamber makes urgent plea for foreign workers
General Chamber of Commerce says tens of thousands of vacancies can't be filled by locals, but critics see a ploy to bring in cheap labour
One of Hong Kong's most influential business groups is working on a proposal calling on the government to allow an influx of foreign workers - warning that it is the only way to solve the city's labour shortage.
The General Chamber of Commerce says tens of thousands of vacancies across a variety of industries cannot be filled by the local workforce.
"Right now there is a big discrepancy between job vacancies and the labour force," chamber chief executive Shirley Yuen said yesterday. "If this situation remains unsettled, it will only result in long working hours and poor service quality."
Yuen said that last month there were up to 110,000 unfilled vacancies, close to the historic high of 122,000 in 1989.
Among them, import-export, the wholesale and retail trades and the community, social and personal services industries had consistently suffered shortages of more than 10,000 in the past three years, she said.
The hotel and catering trades had experienced a similar problem in the past 15 months.
The chamber estimated the potential labour force at 780,000 - that is, who could be working but are not such as housewives, early retirees and students in continuing education.
But it is said that even if more family-friendly conditions like flexible hours were introduced, as unions were urging, only 8 per cent of them would be willing to enter the market.
"These people couldn't fully satisfy the market demand even then," Yuen said. "I guess it is the right moment to bring up the import of foreign labour."
The government last introduced a labour-importation scheme in the 1990s, with a quota of 25,000 per year in all sectors. But there was no quota limit for the construction of the airport at Chek Lap Kok, then under way.
The policy, criticised by the labour unions, was replaced in 1996 with the Supplementary Labour Scheme, under which only businesses with a proven failure to employ workers in a four-week period were qualified to file applications to the Labour Advisory Board for vetting.
Yuen said the scheme had been "unhelpful", as the application procedure was complicated and excluded jobs like drivers, waiters and salespeople.
But Labour Party chairman Lee Cheuk-yan said more family-friendly policies should be introduced first, instead of "abruptly importing labour for the sake of lower wages".
A Labour Department spokeswoman said employers unable to fill vacancies locally could import labour at technician level or below under the supplementary scheme.
Last year, there were 5,922 applications for the scheme and 1,942 were approved. The construction industry made 2,776, the largest number of applications, but only 284 were approved. Most of the imported workers under the scheme were for the community, social and personal service sector, with 921 applications approved.