The government could directly import workers for infrastructure projects at the border, an official has revealed to the South China Morning Post.
The idea emerged after manpower shortages were given as one of the reasons behind the two-year delay to the HK$67 billion high-speed railway linking Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
If the plan goes ahead, it will mark a departure from the current process under which contractors who want to import labour have to prove to the government that the vacancies cannot be filled by local workers.
According to the official, the government would consider the possibility of applying directly to the Labour Advisory Board to import foreign workers for selected projects.
Normally, applications from contractors for the importation of foreign workers are first examined by the Labour Department before being considered by the Labour Advisory Board.
But last month the Labour Advisory Board revealed a new arrangement to simplify the process. It said any application for foreign labour could bypass the examination by the Labour Department. This could cut the average time for importing workers from the present 7-1/2 months to less than six.
If the government applies directly to the Labour Advisory Board to import the foreign workers - cutting out the application by contractors - this could reduce the processing time by even more.
"The importation will be conducted in a project-by-project approach to alleviate the impact of labour shortages on the progress of construction," said the official.
"It would be easier [to implement] as these workers would stay only at the border areas."
The official declined to say which projects would be considered. But those that would fit the requirements include the high-speed railway, the HK$83 billion Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and the HK$120 billion plan to develop new towns in the northeast New Territories.
Last September, the MTR Corp said it needed 2,000 more workers to complete the high-speed railway on time.
Fan Cheung-fung, organising secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions, said the new suggestion might make the hiring process even faster, but felt that it would benefit only those contractors who did not want to pay good salaries and provide full benefits to local workers.
"The government has a responsibility to protect local and foreign labourers, not making it easier for contractors to exploit them," said Fan.
The Labour Advisory Board last month agreed that 26 positions - five related to railway projects - be made available for imported labour.
The board could not be contacted for comment yesterday.