Hong Kong’s poor and outsourced workers need better wages and protection
- Outsourcing might be convenient and cost-effective for employers, but it comes at a high price for some of the city’s most vulnerable workers
- There is much to be gained by offering more generous wages and protection to these households, many of whom are single-parent or new arrivals
While outsourcing can be cost-effective for employers, given its flexibility in employment practices, it can be detrimental to employees and relationships.
Given that it is only a short-term working arrangement, the relationship with workers might not appear to matter. In the long run, however, weak employment ties can have an adverse effect on the community.
The issue has come to the forefront once again in recent days after a local artist, Luke Ching Chin-wai, became an outsourced MTR cleaner to expose the harsh conditions faced by these low-paid workers.
The government has made some improvements, changing the scoring system of the tendering process so the lowest bidder is not necessarily awarded a contract. Even so, certain conditions still need to be met.
Government-outsourced cleaning services reportedly offer more benefits than those that outsourced by private companies. Ironically, many of these big shopping centre operators and the MTR Corporation have received community service awards, including for volunteering and caring for the poor and elderly.
These companies have worked hard to build up a positive image, enhance employees’ sense of belonging and demonstrate their commitment to building an inclusive and harmonious society.
Even if outsourcing is inevitable, the government can take steps to improve statutory protection rather than turning a blind eye to structural injustices in management practices.
In addition, the minimum wage review every two years neither reflects nor responds to the needs of low-skilled workers. The cost of living isn’t subject to revision every two years, and people who rely on the minimum wage are no less affected.
If a business can afford it, there is much to be gained by offering better wages to these low-skilled employees: it would create tangible and intangible benefits for the community, while having a ripple effect to improve salaries for other workers.
There are around 55,500 working-poor households, making up 177,500 of the city’s population. Among them are 2,700 single-parent and 3,800 new-arrival households. More than 40 per cent of both groups have an education level of lower secondary or below.
Outsourcing work does not mean outsourcing responsibilities. I hope the Hong Kong government can use its powers to improve the lot of disadvantaged groups in society and support them so they can make an independent living.
Outsourcing low-skilled labour in the hope that the free market will compensate for any shortcomings has lost its effect because of the structural problems inherent in the practice of outsourcing. This requires a serious review, followed by effective intervention.
Let’s hope the new Legislative Council can help improve the welfare of these workers, offering a chance to improve the city’s poverty situation, which has been getting worse in recent years.
It is the time to demonstrate our commitment to creating a more harmonious society by addressing the needs of outsourced workers.
Paul Yip is chair professor (population health) at the Social Work and Social Administration Department of the University of Hong Kong
David Dodwell is away