Bar benders - Development of Hong Kong's bar bending trade
The construction industry is one of the major pillars of Hong Kong's economy with a large number of industry participants. Among the many trades, bar bending has a prominent position as it has witnessed our city’s urbanisation and grown together with Hong Kong. Because of its high requirements for skills and physical fitness, in addition to its high pay, the trade has attracted quite a number of young people to join in recent years. This time, to learn more about the professionalism and perseverance of bar benders, I have invited an instructor who teaches the bar bending course at the Hong Kong Institute of Construction (HKIC) and a practitioner who is a graduate to share with us why they join the industry and their work experiences.
The high density of skyscrapers in Hong Kong is often regarded as a symbol of prosperity. However, the bar benders working diligently behind the scenes are often forgotten. As the first batch of buildings made of concrete and steel was already built in Hong Kong in the 1910s, it is estimated that a group of bar benders emerged around that time. Although no records of the particulars of these workers have been found, we can get a glimpse of their contribution throughout the years by looking at the journey of Hong Kong’s city development.
Contributing to urban development
Hong Kong’s population surged rapidly after the war. Not only did the squatter huts made of sheet iron and wood fail to meet public demand for housing, but they also could not provide a safe environment for the occupants. Later, the Government actively built resettlement blocks using reinforced concrete technology for buildings. In the 1960s, the vast majority of newly-built buildings in Hong Kong adopted reinforced concrete structures. Therefore, bar benders have become the backbone of Hong Kong’s urban development and have greatly improved the housing environment for grassroots families. As infrastructure projects such as road networks also involve bar bending, our bar benders are indispensable for the urban development of Hong Kong.
Since the 1970s, bar bending has been moving towards modernisation with the Construction Industry Training Authority (CITA -now the Construction Industry Council) starting to offer short training courses lasting 3 to 6 months for many frontline trades including bar bending. At that time, the construction industry did not have trade testing and registration systems like today’s, with most bar benders following the traditional apprentice route to learn from a master. As a result, between the 1980s and 1990s, an average of only about 20 to 60 bar benders graduated from training courses per year. Formal training courses were not the main source of new bar benders.
Trade testing to improve professional image of workers
In 1995, the CITA established trade testing for bar benders, allowing workers to gain recognition for their skill levels through assessment. Not only can trade testing improve the workers’ professional image, it also paves the way for their wages to increase in line with their work experience. As such, bar bending is one of the trades with higher pay. According to HKIC instructor TSANG Chun-wah, at present, new entrants to the industry get a daily wage of $1,000. With 3 to 5 years of experience and technical skills of bar bending meeting the requirements for “Registered Skilled Worker” (also known as “Craftsmen”), a workers’ daily wage could reach $2,520.
Perseverance, willpower and a sense of responsibility
Nevertheless, Mr TSANG Chun-wah says that many people have misconceptions about bar bending, thinking that wages are high and a fit and strong body is all that is necessary. In fact, to be a bar bender, a correct mindset is also very important. Punctuality, willpower and a sense of responsibility are some of the qualities required. According to Mr TSANG Chun-wah, similar to sportsmen, bar benders must have perseverance and willpower apart from sufficient stamina. This is because bar benders have to work in sweltering places outdoors and have to remain resolute to complete the job.
Construction Industry Council (CIC) graduate Mr NGAI Wai-keung says that outsiders may find it difficult to understand the hardships inherent in bar bending. He recalls one time in December that he had to work at a site near the coast in Tung Chung. While working there, it was so cold that his lips turned purple, but he persevered and carried on. Because of his “willingness to learn and work”, his daily wage has already reached the “Craftsmen” level after only about 4 years as a bar bender, which is really not bad.
Regarding the outlook of the bar bending trade, new town development and increasing housing demand will help move forward the development of the trade. Moreover, to attract more new entrants to the construction industry, both the Government and the trade encourage professionalisation of the construction industry, such as promoting the use of more technology, increasing the use of precast units, and paying more attention to work safety. According to the statistics kept by the CIC, in the past 3 years (2016-2018), an average of about 750 trainees in its bar bending and fixing course graduated every year, more than 95 percent of them have found employment after graduation. They have been of great help in alleviating the manpower shortage in the bar bending trade.
I believe, with the development of the bar bending trade, such as an increasing demand for bar bending workers arising from various infrastructure and housing developments, the availability of vocational training and improved skills, the professional image of bar benders will be further enhanced. Apart from training for physical fitness, it is most important for practitioners to have strong willpower, to strive for continuous improvement in their craftsmanship, and to never give up! Those who work hard are sowing the seeds for success!
6 January, 2019