Over 80 per cent of Hong Kong construction workers disagree with moves to import foreign labour, according to a survey published by a union on Wednesday. Its chairperson has claimed that the labour shortage is just an “illusion.”

Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union
Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union announcing results from a survey about hiring foreign labour on May 24, 2023. Photo: Mandy Cheng.

The government is considering setting a special programme allowing the construction industry to hire foreign labour without the approval of the Labour Advisory Board – a non-statutory body that advises the Commissioner for Labour on labour matters – according to Ming Pao and HK01 last month.

The Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union (HKCIEGU) conducted a survey between April 20 and May 3, interviewing 608 construction workers. The result showed that 81.3 per cent of respondents disagreed with moves to import labour, whilst 76.8 per cent thought that the policy would lead to local unemployment.

The survey also found that 39.3 per cent of respondents said they believed that there would be more accidents, whilst 70.5 per cent feared a drop in salary.

construction site industrial crane
A construction site in Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Ho Ping-tak, the chairman of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Bamboo Scaffolding Workers Union said: “Maybe someone is creating an illusion of a labour shortage… If there was a reasonable salary, construction period and working environment, how would it be difficult to employ staff?”

He said that the expected construction period for finishing a floor of a building had been shortened from seven days to four. “The construction periods are severely unrealistic and [employers] treat staff as robots… If the construction periods are further shortened to two or three days, I believe that there would still be a labour shortage, even if all the workers from the Greater Bay Area come to Hong Kong.”

Construction site worker blue collar infrastructure
File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Ho added that the environment at construction sites was poor, and workers had to hold their breath when they use toilets.

According to the HKCIEGU, there are more than 600,000 registered construction workers in the city, which Ho said was enough. Wong Ping, chairperson of HKCIEGU, also claimed that there were a lot of labourers who wanted to seek help from the union to find employment.

Low compliance with heatstroke warnings

After a three-tier warning system to help protect workers from heatstroke was introduced last Monday, the union said there was a low compliance with the warning system, which is not legally-binding.

The warnings, issued by the Labour Department, have three tiers: amber, red and black, indicating three levels of heat stress and different rest arrangements for workers. In severe cases, workers are recommended to down tools.

heatstroke chart
Photo: Labour Department.

For instance, when there is an amber warning, workers with a “very heavy” workload – like scaffolders – are recommended to take 45 minutes of rest after working for 15 minutes every hour.

The amber warning was issued on three consecutive days last week. But Ho said that he did not know of any workers that were asked to rest. He added that employers or supervisors would say: “You decide on your own. Our construction will continue anyway.”

He said developers should allow the delay of the construction project if there are heatstroke warnings.

The union urged the industry to improve health and safety measures for construction workers and boost salaries in order to tackle the labour shortage. It also suggested the government could stagger construction projects in an organised way, to avoid too many developments beginning simultaneously.

When approached by HKFP for statistics, the Development Bureau referred to an earlier press release which noted a February report by the Construction Manpower Forecast of the Construction Industry claiming a shortage of 40,000 construction workers.

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Mandy Cheng is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. Previously, she worked at Ming Pao, focusing on investigative and feature reporting. She also contributed to Cable TV and others.