Keeping an eye on the contractor

Keeping an eye on the contractor

Warnings by RSSA on staffing shortages

With the construction industry in a buoyant state, concern over labour shortages on the frontline to meet the increased workload tends to naturally grab the headlines.

Often overlooked, however, is the site supervision staff, especially on public works, to manage the projects and keep an eye on the contractor.

“By observations, shortage of RSS [Resident Site Staff] manpower in the market to meet the demand in the burgeoning public works industry is undeniable,” Resident Site Staff Association chairman Chow Ping-wai said.

Staff for junior technical posts such survey officers (Engineering), survey officers (Quantity), technical officers (Civil) and works supervisors were currently in “dire need”.

Asked recently by Construction Post about the level of RSS manpower, Thomas Ho On-sing, chief executive of Gammon Construction, said briefly: “It isn’t just [inspectorate staff] but the whole lot.”

A company boss at a listed contractor concurred with Ho, saying the situation was extremely adverse.

“Almost for all our projects, no matter whether it is Government or MTRC, everybody has trouble coping with contract administration and supervision work due to staff shortage. Naturally the booming construction market in Macau does not help,” the boss said.

Over the past few years, engineering consultant firms such as AECOM, Mott MacDonald and Black & Veatch have been persistently placing job adverts for resident site staff to meet an expanding public works programme.

For example, AECOM placed a job advert in the Classified Post last October for 31 staff from professional level down to clerical assistant for the site formation and infrastructure works for the Liantang/Heung Yuen Wai Boundary Control Point project which started work last March.

The next month, in November, it placed an advert for 60 site staff for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass and Island Eastern Corridor Link, a project which started in December 2009.

Rival Arup placed an advert last August for 10 site staff to cover the reclamation works for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Hong Kong Boundary Crossing Facilities.

“The incumbents may be required to work irregular hours, overtime, at night and on shifts including Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays and to carry out supervision outside Hong Kong when required,” the Arup job advert said.

Not exactly employee-friendly terms.

Another hard day at the office. A resident site staff of engineering consultant AECOM at the Central-Wan Chai Bypass project  (Danny Chung)

Another hard day at the office. A resident site staff of engineering consultant AECOM at the Central-Wan Chai Bypass project (Danny Chung)

Asked about the consequences of staff shortages, Chow said the existing staff who remained would have to share the workload transferred from vacant posts resulting sometimes in overtime and excessive workload pressures.

While he was not in a position to comment on the quantity of newcomers becoming RSS upon graduating from technical courses at the local universities and technical institutes, Chow said RSS could be attracted from the MTR Corporation (0066) and contractors and also from rehiring former staff and retired staff.

Chow declined to comment on whether the consultancies were headhunting staff to fill vacancies.

For a contractor, trying to stay out of the way is no defence.

“It is a real trouble now facing the industry. Even if you do not tender, if someone else gets a big contract, they will pinch staff from you!” the exasperated company boss said.

There are no statistics on the quantity of RSS personnel as the association does not maintain figures.

If government public works cost estimates are any guide, the cost of such personnel and hence its numbers can be substantial.

For example, when the Legislative Council approved funding of HK$28.1 billion for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass project in June 2009, within the approved project estimate was HK$1.35 billion at money-of-the-day prices for renumeration of RSS.

For the Tuen Mun–Chek Lap Kok Link, the funds of which were approved last June, the renumeration of the RSS within the approved project estimate of HK$44.8 billion was put at HK$1.81 billion.

The renumeration for RSS personnel for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass project was estimated at HK$1.35 billion when the Legislative Council approved funding in June 2009   (Danny Chung)

The renumeration for RSS personnel for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass project was estimated at HK$1.35 billion when the Legislative Council approved funding in June 2009 (Danny Chung)

Chow said his association has not yet written formally to the government on RSS manpower but has voiced its concerns at meetings with the government over the likelihood of the souring demand for RSS “greatly” exceeding the growth of RSS in the current boom.

Undermanned RSS, Chow warned, could result in lowering of site supervision standards.

“In view of this, RSSA has suggested the government launch public works projects at a steady pace to scotch fickleness of the demand of RSS in the coming future,” Chow said.

One problem pointed out by Chow was pay.

Although the employment terms of RSS were compatible with prevailing civil service terms and generally attractive enough to retain staff, a change in policy by the government since 2008 has had the effect of deterring people from rejoining as RSS.

Experienced site staff would be regarded as complete newcomers in terms of pay if they had a 12-month break in service.

“This peculiar pegging of personnel’s salaries to their career fate has stemmed the [return] of ex-RSS and retired RSS,” Chow said.

Danny Chung

 

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