Social workers seek to rein in boards' powers
A campaign to reform the boards of directors of government-subsidised welfare agencies begins today with a meeting between the director of social welfare and social workers' representatives.
Calls for reform have come as many people in the sector believe the boards wield too much power.
Social workers and academics say the lack of checks and balances on the boards affects service quality and morale among workers.
Peter Cheung Kwok-che, president of the Social Workers' General Union, said the power of boards had grown out of proportion since the implementation of the lump sum grant system in 2001.
'Before 2001, these boards in fact did not have much authority at all, as every welfare group followed the government's pay scale and service guidelines,' he said.
Workers' salaries and the manpower deployment in welfare services had been in line with government trends before 2001 and the boards had maintained general oversight of their organisations.
'But since then, these boards can decide pay scales and manpower for services,' he said. 'What is more, many of them tend to hoard money given annually by the government, as a reserve.'
Mr Cheung said welfare workers were angry because boards were withholding money allocated to expand welfare services.
'No new workers are employed but then new services have to be introduced to secure government money,' he said. 'There is only one consequence - staff are exploited and existing workers have to work more.'
According to the Social Welfare Department, 162 NGOs are involved in the lump sum grant system and they have accumulated cash reserves of HK$1.8 billion.
'There should not be any reserve at all,' said University of Hong Kong social work professor Nelson Chow Wing-sun, who also sits on several welfare bodies' boards. 'It is public money, not welfare agencies' money. [It] ... should be spent on services.'
Professor Chow said directors tended to save the money for the future, fearing their boards would have to pay from their own resources if deficits arose.
'But then it should not be the worry for any welfare group. If a service cannot be provided due to money, it should be the responsibility of the government, not the board.'
Social welfare sector legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said the government believed the system gave NGOs more autonomy.
'But do NGOS really have the management capability?' he asked.
He said it was unlikely that boards of NGOs intended any harm but problems might be arising from the composition of boards. 'Traditionally, most of these board members come from the business sector but not from the social sector.
'Their instincts and fundamental mentality would be [aimed at] the survival of an organisation, the financial aspect, rather than welfare services,' Dr Cheung said.
Democratic Party vice-chairman Tik Chi-yuen, a veteran social worker and former chief executive of a welfare group, agreed.
'I think we should learn from the composition of boards of schools, where under the law, representatives from parents, teachers, alumni and member of the public should be included. Checks and balances on the board can therefore be achieved.'
But Professor Chow disagreed.
'It is not a question of boards' composition,' he said. 'Having these people on the board does not necessarily mean anything at all. After all, they are a minority on the board even if they are included. The [Social] Welfare Department can only monitor these boards by audit.'
Today's closed-door meeting is the sector's first step in its bid to reform NGO boards. The issue is to be discussed in the Legislative Council and workers are considering more action, including publishing the names of welfare groups that exploit workers, according to the union.
The Social Welfare Department said all subvented NGOs were bona fide non-profit-making organisations, registered as charitable organisations under Section 88 of the Inland Revenue Ordinance.
'By their legal nature, NGOs are not for profit, so there is little incentive for them to 'exploit' their staff,' a department spokeswoman said.
Social Welfare Department subventions to NGOs
(in billions of HK dollars)
2008-09 (estimate) $8.68b
Total reserves by NGOs as at 2005-06: about $1.8 billion.
Source: Social Welfare Department