The long-standing problem of illegal workers in Hong Kong is one that must be taken seriously - especially at a time when unemployment levels among unskilled labourers are high. Thousands of unlawful workers, many of them from the mainland, are arrested each year. They are usually hired by unscrupulous employers who pay them much less than the going rate for legitimate members of the workforce. The wages are, however, higher than the workers can earn outside Hong Kong. That is why they are prepared to run the risk of prosecution and prison terms of up to two years. The government is well aware of the need to crack down on illegal workers - both to prevent their exploitation and to protect the legal workforce in Hong Kong. But the latest proposal, put forward by Secretary for Economic Development and Labour Stephen Ip Shu-kwan last week is misconceived. Mr Ip has suggested that labour laws need to be amended to prevent compensation being paid to illegal workers and their families for work-related accidents causing death or injury. Almost $1 million was awarded to the widow of one such worker in 2003. Several similar cases are in the pipeline. This has been described as a 'loophole in the law'. The government is now reviewing the legislation with a view to barring illegal workers from receiving payouts. The thinking is that this would deter them from coming to Hong Kong. There is, however, no evidence to suggest it would achieve this objective. Illegal workers are driven primarily by a desire for wages. They are unlikely to be deterred by concerns that compensation will not be paid if they are killed or injured at work. There is also an important principle at stake. The Employees Compensation Assistance Fund was set up to provide a safety net for injured workers and their families. This protection should be afforded to all members of the workforce. The need to combat illegal workers is a different issue. The government policy that rightly aims to crack down on unlawful labour does not, as Mr Ip suggests, conflict with the law relating to compensation. Denying payouts to illegal workers would send the wrong message to employers. It would encourage them both to hire illegal workers and to believe they are not entitled to safe working conditions. This is not a responsible approach. The way to curb illegal employment is to step up enforcement of labour laws so that unlawful workers - and especially those who employ them - are caught and punished. Steps should also be taken, with the help of mainland authorities, to make it more difficult for those intending to work unlawfully to enter Hong Kong. Cracking down on illegal workers is an important objective. But denying compensation to those injured in accidents is not the way to do it.