Jake's View

For once, we’re right to reject the city’s surfeit of public works of dubious purpose

Hong Kong Construction Alliance says it needs HK$70b of new public projects every year, but public sector construction expenditure is already running at more than HK$100b

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2017, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2017, 10:45pm

A construction alliance has threatened to surround the Legislative Council’s complex in Admiralty with trucks if lawmakers keep using filibustering tactics to delay infrastructure projects – SCMP, June 9

My colleague Alex Lo wrote about this one earlier and was generally sympathetic to the complaint, largely on the part of construction workers. I find myself taking the opposite view.

It is primarily a matter of straight fact. While the Hong Kong Construction Alliance says it needs HK$70 billion of new public projects every year, public sector construction expenditure, as my first chart shows, is already running at more than HK$100 billion (US$12.8 billion) a year.

This is up more than fourfold from the bottom in 2008. No other major component of gross domestic product has staged such a dramatic growth rate over the period. How is construction so hard done by the government then?

Roughly the same trends are apparent in employment. Construction is a seasonal industry but average number of jobs in it over the last six years has risen by 26.5 per cent as against 7.1 per cent for all other occupations.

No other major industry has seen such growth in employment over the period. And while the construction unemployment rate is generally higher than in Hong Kong overall (as is the average age in the industry), the disparity is much less than it used to be.

At the worst in January 2004, the construction unemployment rate was 19 per cent as again an overall 7.9 per cent. These figures on a 12-month average basis are now respectively 4 per cent and 3.4 per cent. It is not a serious problem any longer.

In this context, it is interesting to see the alliance claim that 450,000 families with members working in the industry stand to be affected by the slow pace of Legco’s project approvals.

It must be an industry of bigamists then, as there are only 340,000 people employed in it.

Likewise, the argument that the Legco ought to speed things up because 30 per cent of the city’s architecture students could not find internships this year, is surely setting the cart before the horse. We have architects in order to serve construction. We do not have a construction industry to please architects.

Thus, here is a message to students considering a career in architecture: Don’t. The construction alliance says there is a surfeit of you. Try your hand at something else.

But I also have a survey to propose to the construction alliance. How many of your employees, sirs, now come from the mainland, Pakistan and India? What proportion of them will come from these countries if you are granted as many government projects as you now want?

In short, for whose benefit are you really lobbying?

The answer to the question, I am sure, is that this alliance is a contractors’ lobby trying to disguise itself as a workers’ association.

Legco actually has good reason for rejecting many of the construction proposals put to it. They are make-work projects of dubious need, concocted to satisfy greedy functional constituencies.

This is not about filibustering. It is about prudent expenditure of public money. We are being asked to forego prudence.