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LCQ3: Importation of construction workers

Following is a question by the Hon James Tien and a reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, in the Legislative Council today (July 9):

Question:

At present, a number of public housing and infrastructure works projects have encountered one after another problems of cost overrun or delays.  Some members of the community have pointed out that manpower shortage in the construction industry is one of the causes of such problems.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council whether it will, by making reference to the arrangements made between 1990 and 1999 when the New Airport and Related Projects were being carried out, consider afresh the introduction of a special labour importation scheme for public housing and infrastructure works projects, so as to ensure that such works projects will be completed on schedule, thereby addressing the housing needs of the grassroots as early as possible and maintaining sustained development of Hong Kong's economy; if the Government will not consider introducing such a scheme, of the specific reasons for that, and whether it has assessed the specific impacts of labour shortage on such works projects?

Reply:

Acting President,

The Government aims to complete various public housing and infrastructure projects within budget and on schedule in order to resolve housing problems of the public, improve their quality of life and living environment as soon as possible, and enhance the long-term competitiveness of Hong Kong.  Nevertheless, according to past experience, serious delays for some major projects were mainly due to unforeseen circumstances, including legal challenges, judicial reviews and prolonged public consultation.  As for the expenditure of public works projects, although individual projects have required additional funding according to their actual circumstances, we generally managed to complete the relevant projects under the Capital Works Programme within the original Approved Project Estimates.

As regards manpower resource, we are well aware that Hong Kong is facing the situations of ageing population and dwindling labour force. Coupled with the onset of major infrastructure projects and other construction projects in recent years, the construction industry is facing the problems of ageing workforce, shortage of skilled workers and skills mismatch. If there are insufficient skilled workers to meet the demand of the construction industry, the development of Hong Kong will be hindered.

My reply to the Hon James Tien's question is set out below:

We have deployed a series of measures since 2008-09 to address the manpower challenges of the construction industry.  We collaborate with the Construction Industry Council (CIC) to adopt a multi-pronged approach with an aim to addressing the demand for skilled workers in the construction industry. Relevant measures include enhancing training and construction productivity, stepping up publicity and promotion, and improving the working environment for workers and construction site safety, etc.

On the training front, we have obtained a total of $320 million from the Legislative Council in 2010 and 2012 to support CIC to strengthen its role in training local construction personnel and enhance promotion and publicity efforts to attract more people, especially young people, to join the industry. Since the launch of these training initiatives, CIC has substantially increased the number of training places over the past years.

Although these initiatives have been implemented smoothly and attained certain achievements, the shortage problem of skilled workers has yet to be fully resolved. Further, according to CIC's forecast, the overall construction output will be maintained at a high level which will put further strain on the manpower situation of the construction industry.

We will continue to strive to meet the manpower demand by training and re-training local workers and attracting more new entrants to join the construction industry. However, there are certain limitations in training local workers. For instance, the graduate trainees are semi-skilled workers who would need time and on-site practice for them to be nurtured as skilled workers, but there are insufficient in-service skilled workers to nurture them. Further, the productivity of in-service skilled workers will also be affected by nurturing the semi-skilled workers.

In this connection, with due regard to the principle of not affecting the employment and not lowering the wages of local workers, we need to import skilled workers in a timely manner.  This will not only help meet the manpower demand of the industry but will also make room for the local in-service skilled workers to nurture the semi-skilled workers.

If we cannot import skilled workers in shortage in a timely manner, it will lead to delay and deferral in the commencement of worthwhile construction projects and affect the employment opportunities of construction workers, in particular the skilled workers not in shortage and general workers. Further, it will lead to a more acute construction peak several years later, which may result in even higher project prices and further strain the manpower situation. At the same time, realisation of the economic and social benefits of these projects will also be deferred.

Our current arrangement is to work together with the Labour Department to do better preparatory works for Supplementary Labour Scheme (SLS) applications related to public sector works, with a view to saving time for administrative work.  It facilitates timely import skilled workers for public sector works in genuine need and so relieves the shortage of skilled workers of the whole construction industry. This arrangement will not change the existing mechanism of SLS and not adopt a quota approach to process applications. Labour Advisory Board agreed to accept this arrangement at its meeting on March 26, 2014. We opine that this arrangement is most appropriate and acceptable to the relevant stakeholders for the time being.  This arrangement has just been approved for launching. We will liaise closely with the Labour Department and the industry to review the effectiveness of the arrangement in due course and act as appropriate.

We have also considered Hon Tien's proposal of making reference to the labour importation approach adopted during the era of construction of the Chek Lap Kok Airport. Except for the quota approach adopted in processing the applications for importation of workers for the airport and related works, its main procedures are similar to those of the current SLS. Their similarities include that applications were considered case by case; contractors were required to undertake four-week local recruitments to employ local workers at wages not below the median wage levels; when the applicant contractors could not recruit sufficient local workers through the above recruitment exercise, applications would be considered by a working group specifically set up for the scheme. Therefore, at this stage, we will not introduce a special labour importation scheme for public housing and infrastructure projects.

Finally, I hope various stakeholders can fully understand the situation and cooperate to address the challenges of acute ageing, manpower shortage and skills mismatch in the construction industry.

Ends/Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Issued at HKT 16:45

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