WALK into any commercial-residential building in Hong Kong late at night and chances are you will see a venerable elder peering from a broom closet or laying on a cot under a stairway. This is your licensed security guard, the man entrusted with the protection of yourself, your family and your property. Does his appearance make you feel snug and safe? Possibly not. It's been traditional in the security industry to employ retired men, put them in a uniform and hope for the best. Often decrepit and unfit, they are of little or no deterrence to determined professional burglars, who are usually young, strong and unwilling to let anything stand in their way. Hence changes in regulations governing the way your office and home is protected. The old Watchmen's Ordinance of 1956 - the legalistic roots go back a century - is now being replaced by a new Security and Guarding Ordinance which will come into full effect in June. Police Licensing Officer Superintendent Au Hok-lam is currently re-issuing licenses under the new procedures. This is no quick and simple task; there are an astonishing 130,000 registered security guards in Hong Kong. 'It's a unique trade,' Mr Au says. Regulating the way it works has not kept up with radical changes that include new technology, surveillance systems, computerisation and equipment. 'Every building in Hong Kong has a caretaker or watchman,' he explains. 'If they have any security responsibility, or have to check the ID of people coming and going, then they have to be licensed watchmen. 'They are a significant part of the working population.' Two decades ago, a Sikh with a hockey stick was often thought to be sufficient to protect a goldsmith's shop. Today, banks, malls and government offices are scrutinised by sophisticated and expensive security installations maintained by trained staff. But there are simply not enough of them. Even at a time of spiralling unemployment, the security industry cannot attract sufficient manpower. This is why squat, tough and silent Nepalese have been increasingly employed as private security guards. As the British army demobilises its Gurkha brigades, some security organisations have been quick to sign-on the legendary warriors of Nepal. Jardine Security Services is by far the largest employer of Gurkhas, with 600 now wearing their uniforms. Managing director Chris Hardy says all are former British army soldiers. The Labour Department lays down stringent requirements for overseas recruits under the Labour Importation Scheme. As licensing officer, Mr Au has to satisfy himself that a security guard being recruited from overseas is a 'fit and proper' person to hold what can be such a potentially tempting job. The same criteria apply as for Hong Kong residents. If a serving guard is convicted of being a triad member, dealing in drugs, is involved in a sex crime, violence or fraud and dishonesty, he loses his licence. If someone with a record of such offences applies for a job, he comes under increased scrutiny. Because employees can easily check the military discharge papers of a former soldier, this is another reason Gurkhas have been obvious recruits into the security industry. As with domestic helpers, the Government lays down minimum pay scales for those recruited overseas to work as security guards. The former minimum pay was $7,330 a month, but most employers, such as Jardine's security companies, paid $8,000. New regulations will boost the minimum to $9,450. This compares to the $6,500 pay of a single Gurkha sergeant in the British army. Foreign workers are needed because Hong Kong people do not perceive basic security work as a career job. Mr Hardy points out that with 6,000 staff, Gurkhas make up only 10 per cent of Jardine Security Group workers. They are badly needed. Mobility, and therefore cost of training, is high; last year, the company had 2,400 local recruits and lost 2,280 workers. 'People see it as a short-term job until they get something better or as something to do after retirement,' he explains. GURKHAS who have lengthy service in Hong Kong are obviously ideal recruits for the ranks of private security companies. They speak English, many speak fluent Cantonese and their army discipline and training prepares them for a job that can be as frequently boring as it is sometimes dangerous and challenging. 'Their military experience puts them streets ahead,' Mr Hardy says. For exactly the same reasons, soldiers who are being rostered out of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps are also marching away from the barracks to the security industry. For Mr Au, licensing guards is the same, no matter where they come from. The new regulations insist they be 'fit and proper' and steps are taken to make sure they are. Not everyone in the security industry is happy with the new regulations. Ted Devereux, chief executive of Guardforce, contends changes in licensing requirements cut down the element of safety. In the past, guards had to be Hong Kong residents for at least two years before they could apply for a permit. This has been dropped. There is now no residency requirement. WHY? One explanation is increasingly sophisticated hi-tech equipment. If the firm of Chubb, for instance, is installing a huge in-built safe costing several million dollars, or an overseas consultant is needed to advise on a costly surveillance system in a new building, they must have a licence. Obviously, they cannot have lived here for two years. But there's another angle; it means companies can bring in their own guards from abroad, men with no family connections or other links in Hong Kong. In a cash-guarding situation where millions of dollars of currency is being carried around the streets, the dangers and temptations are obvious. Mr Devereux argues there are plenty of men - there are few women guards - who would do the job if the pay was right. Many firms simply refuse to pay a decent wage. In turn, customers demand bodies in uniforms to stand watch over their premises at the lowest possible price. The largest client for security guards in Hong Kong is the Government. In the gazette, contract rates for guards is listed. It is usually about $15 an hour. This works out at about $2,800 a month, setting a rock-bottom standard for the industry. 'What sort of person are you going to get working awkward and lengthy overnight shifts for this sort of money?' Mr Devereux asks. His firm pays a minimum of $6,000, and does not have a major problem finding sufficient staff. To myself, and many others, it seems a ludicrous situation. The Government insists on high wage scales for foreign workers, then demands security companies provide them with guards at about a third of that price. Think about that next time you go home and find a frail grandfather in a security uniform nodding off at your front door when he is supposed to be alert and responsive for the protection of your home and family.