Hundreds of striking bar benders will not be allowed to work on construction sites next month - not because of their protest, but because of a new ordinance that requires construction workers to be registered.
'About 700 ironworkers have registered, but 400 to 500 are still unregistered,' Construction Site Workers' General Union spokesman Ng Koon-kwan said yesterday.
They must register with the Construction Workers Registration Authority by Friday. Starting from Saturday, the authority can prohibit unregistered construction workers from working on sites.
The authority said the registration system was aimed at ensuring the quality of construction workers through assessment and certification of their skill levels, and to help stop the hiring of illegal workers on site.
The maximum fine for violators is HK$10,000 for construction workers and HK$50,000 for employers.
There were 271,500 construction workers in Hong Kong last December. But as of last Sunday, only 176,434 were registered.
The strike by about 600 bar benders over pay and working hours entered its 18th day yesterday. A march from Victoria Park to the government offices will start today at 2pm.
Mr Ng said most were unregistered and would become de facto illegal workers when the new regulation comes into force.
The workers have complained that the real hurdle is not the registration itself, but the assessment and certification of their skills.
'The assessment to certify us is questionable,' said Luk Kwan-ngai, chairman of the Hong Kong Construction Industry Bar-bending Workers' Union.
He said many bar benders failed the examination because of 'outdated criteria' that did not match the actual practice.
'It is not a doorway to recognise us, but a gate to deny us,' Mr Luk said. 'Many bar benders want to be registered and be recognised, but the thresholds of the assessment are simply too high.'
Apart from the complaints of ironworkers, window fitter Shek Lam-sang, of the Construction Site Workers' General Union, argued that the registration procedure was unnecessarily difficult.
'There is too much information to recall while filling out the forms,' said Mr Shek, 63. 'I worked for so many bosses in the past six years. I only care about the wage; I seldom remember the name of my boss.'
Mr Shek said the new ordinance was expected to tackle the problem of occupational safety and combat the hiring of illegal workers, but he questioned its effectiveness.
'Under the new arrangement, registered skilled workers can bring pupils to the construction site. Who can guarantee these so-called pupils are not illegal workers?' he asked.
Registration authority secretary Erik Wong Suk-chun could not be reached for comment.
A Labour Department spokesman would not comment on the qualification process, saying only: 'The department has a hotline for the public to report illegal employment.'