But labour imports necessary for short-term
Proper training lasting up to four years for construction workers is the only hope for a long-term solution for the construction industry’s current labour shortage woes.
That was the message from the Hong Kong Construction Association as it revealed the results of its latest construction labour survey that showed a worsening vacancy rate.
At a press briefing last Friday, the association said the vacancy rate on construction sites was 16.72 percent for November, up from the 15.68 percent recorded in its last survey in April.
The survey collected data from 153 construction sites belonging to the association’s member contractors.
On a particular date in November, the survey found there were 24,307 workers on site with the number of vacancies standing at 4,064.
With an average of about 60,000 workers on site on any working day, the association estimated, through extrapolation of the survey result, the number of vacancies currently would be over 10,000.
Of the ten trades with the severest labour shortages, bricklayers came top with a vacancy rate of 75 percent followed by formwork carpenters on civil engineering works at 52 percent.
Third place were concretors with a vacancy rate of 50 percent.
“It is getting more and more serious,” HKCA president Thomas Ho On-sing said of the deterioration of the vacancy rate.
The construction industry has been struggling since 2010 to cope with a ballooning workload caused by increased spending on infrastructure works and private development projects.
Ho said despite the best efforts of the Construction Industry Council and the government in the past few years in providing more funding and training programmes to train frontline workers and attract new blood, the industry was still facing labour shortages.
He said the HKCA was receiving reports from the steelfixers trade assocation that middlemen were supplying barely trained workers for work that required experienced workers with consequential effect on safety, quality of work and productivity.
As such the rationale behind training currently, that is, training up semi-skilled staff in the shortest possible time, had to be changed.
“We need to train skilled workers for three to four years for sustainable development,” Ho said.
He said the funding was there for training from the Construction Industry Levy collected from contractors and funds provided by the government.
In 2010 and 2012, the government allocated a total of HK$320 million to support the CIC’s training schemes which included giving subsidies to contractors to employ trainees on a “first-hire-then-train” basis.
For example the CIC offers the Enhanced Construction Manpower Training Scheme and the Contractor Cooperative Training Scheme.
Ho said a worker could not be adequately trained in three or six months noting that it took site experience before a carpenter could properly erect formwork for a flight of stairs.
With a pool of more trained and skilled workers to draw from, labour costs would be lowered thus leading ultimately to lower construction costs, which Ho said were currently extremely high.
According to a survey in October by the Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union, concretors were now getting paid HK$1,800 a day, up 20 percent over a year ago.
Formwork carpenters saw their wages jump 15 percent year-on-year to HK$1,500 a day.
However with the prospect of having properly trained labour still unrealised, the only solution in the short-term was to import labour under the Supplementary Labour Scheme.
On this matter, Ho hoped the government would help streamline the system for applications of imported labour.
“I have a member who applied 17 months ago and still has no news [of the application],” Ho said.
As such the association has been advising contractors on how to properly file their applications.
Last Tuesday, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Mathew Cheung Kin-chung said the government was studying how to improve the scheme.
HKCA secretary general Thomas Wong Che-wah warned that with labour shortages as they are, the inevitable result would be lengthening of the project periods with knock-on effects on completion and handover.