Patten admits lost jobs link

Catherine Ng

GOVERNOR Chris Patten adopted a conciliatory line on unemployment yesterday, admitting the importation of labour scheme and the growing number of jobless were linked.

Mr Patten told legislators at his monthly question-and-answer session: 'I'm not so naive as to suggest that there is no relationship between the overall level of unemployment in Hong Kong and the importation of workers to Hong Kong.' Last month, Mr Patten told trade unionists the scheme, which allows 25,000 overseas workers to be brought into Hong Kong, was not responsible for the high jobless figure of 78,800 (or 3 per cent). The unionists are adamant the scheme should be scrapped.

Yesterday, Mr Patten was responding to pressure from legislators on what immediate action the Government would take to tackle the problem after this week's Hang Seng Bank report which indicated unemployment would stand at 3.2 per cent for the rest of the year.

Legco's labour representative, Tam Yiu-chung, said Mr Patten had argued the jobless figure only started rising after last August, when the Government stopped approving new quotas for employers.

'The Government may like to adopt a cautious approach now towards the scheme and to see what action can be taken after observing for a longer while,' Mr Tam said.

Mr Patten reminded members not to take a simplistic view of the situation.

The slowdown in consumer spending and industrial restructuring have also played a part, he said.

Legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, the chief executive of the Confederation of Trade Unions, called on the Governor to suspend the labour scheme and halt the import of 4,000 overseas workers waiting to take up jobs in Hong Kong.

But Mr Patten replied: 'I don't think that it would be sensible to suspend the general importation scheme before we've completed the review [by October] . . . and to break what amount to contractual agreements already made with employers who are bringing in labour under the last quota.' Mr Patten said that the aims for the labour summit next week were twofold - to develop a dialogue between the administration, employers and unions and to allow all sides to suggest solutions to the problem.

But Mr Tam, one of the three union representatives due to speak at the summit, said they held out little hope for it and believed the Government would do no more until the jobless figure got worse.