As pressure grows for the city to import more workers, two veteran labour advisers are urging the government to safeguard local workers' rights by using an existing recruiting mechanism and not loosen the hiring criteria.
In separate interviews, Labour Advisory Board members Lee Tak-ming and Stanley Ng Chau-pei both cautioned that any new efforts to import non-local workers should go through the Supplementary Labour Scheme.
Lee said he believed the business sector was not making full use of the scheme because it required employers to pay non-locals at least the median monthly wages of local employees in comparable positions.
"I don't think that this criterion should be lowered" because more cheap mainland workers in the city would mean fewer jobs for local labourers, he said.
The issue was highlighted in January when Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said that the government would have to import labour if the construction industry could not find enough workers.
That labour shortage was highlighted by a Census and Statistics Department report this month that set the shortfall at 800 workers in December, which is up 143 per cent from the same month in 2011.
But one pro-business lawmaker set the figure much higher, at 5,000 workers last month.
The lawmaker, who declined to be named, said the government was studying the idea of importing construction workers, although a spokeswoman for the Labour and Welfare Bureau said it had "no such plan".
But Ng thinks the scheme is functioning well, and he sees no need to loosen the application criteria.
"As long as bosses in different industries don't pay their workers too little, they will be able to find enough workers in Hong Kong," he said recently.
Lee agrees that there is actually no shortage of construction workers in the city. Rather, there is an imbalance of workers in various fields within the sector, because too many are drawn to less physically demanding work.
The scheme was introduced in 1996 to help employers hire from abroad when they cannot find suitable candidates in the city at the level of technicians or below. Employers must show they are unable to fill the posts after recruiting openly for four weeks in the domestic market.
Imported workers must be treated no less favourably than local employees under the labour laws. Each application is processed by the Labour Advisory Board.
"Many applications we received [under the scheme] were for health care workers at elderly homes. They make up about half the applications," Lee said.
"We don't get many applications from the construction industry. And when we do, it is usually applications for engineers instead of workers."
Employers applied for 5,922 workers last year under the scheme, up from 2,440 in 2008, according to the Labour Department. It approved 1,982 applications last year, up from 1,082 in 2008.