PLC Paper No. CB(1)967
Staff in attendance :
(These minutes have been
seen by the Administration)
- Ms Sarah YUEN
- Senior Assistant Secretary (1)4
I Confirmation of minutes of meeting and matters arising
(PLC Paper No. CB(1)803)
The minutes of the meeting held on 22 December 1997 were confirmed.
II. Date and items for discussion for next meeting
2.Members agreed to discuss measures to tackle the unemployment problem at the next regular meeting to be held on Monday, 23 February 1998, at 2:30 p.m.
III.Information papers issued since last meeting
(PLC Paper No. CB(1)762)
3.Members noted that an information paper had been issued for their general information since the last meeting.
IV.Development of the Occupational Health Service
(PLC Paper No. CB(1)760(01))
4.The Principal Assistant Secretary for Education and Manpower (7) (PAS/E&M(7)) briefed members on the latest development of the Occupational Health Service (OHS) in the Labour Department (LD). Members noted that the proposed creation of an additional post of Occupational Health Consultant would be considered by the Establishment Subcommittee in early February 1998 and the transfer of 27 posts from the Department of Health to LD at a later date.
5.Members in general welcomed the expansion of OHS as reported in the Administration's paper. They however opined that public education and inspections should be geared up to tie in with such development. They also raised questions on various initiatives highlighted in the paper.
6.On public education, representatives of the Administration reported that to promote public awareness of occupational safety and health, the Administration had intensified public education with joint efforts from the Occupational Safety and Health Council, LD, trade unions and the Education Department. For example, the Curriculum Development Committee had agreed to incorporate occupational safety and health messages in the school curriculum and that would probably take effect in the following school year; the Construction Industry Training Authority (CITA) had incorporated safety training in many of its training courses; green card training had been required in major construction contracts since November 1995; and mandatory safety training for construction and container handling workers would be introduced. In addition, specific compliance standards in pamphlets, guide books and codes of practice had also been published for various trades and industries. The Deputy Commissioner for Labour (Atg.) (DC for L) supplemented that a $4.5 million publicity campaign would be launched in January 1998 to publicise the new Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance and its Regulation. The new publicity campaign would highlight the importance of co-operation between workers and the management and the message would be displayed on different means of public transport as well as conveyed through information leaflets to be disseminated at information counters set up at government clinics, hospitals and shopping malls.
7.On the role of trade unions in public education, the Chairman pointed out that trade unions could play an important role in enhancing workers awareness of occupational safety and health. He urged the Administration to closely liaise with trade unions in organising talks for and disseminating information to workers.
8.In reply to a member's questions on the scope and details of the large-scale promotion campaign on the awareness of occupational deafness, the Occupational Health Consultant (OHC) advised that upon implementation of the new regulation to the Factories & Industrial Undertakings Ordinance, which would give effect to the mandatory medical examination scheme, the Administration would publicise the scheme together with the hearing conservation programme, prevention measures and control of noise levels in a series of publicity programmes.
9.As for inspections, DC for L explained that as a result of the extension of protection of workers safety to the non-industrial sectors by the new Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance, factory inspectors had been retitled as occupational safety officers. Because of this new Ordinance and the reduction in the number of local factories, the Administration had already redeployed existing human resources for non-industrial inspection duties. In their enforcement, high-risk trades would be singled out for more frequent inspections.
10.Regarding the exact legislative timetable of the new regulation to the Factories & Industrial Undertakings Ordinance to effect the introduction of mandatory pre-employment and periodic medical examinations for workers exposed to hazardous substances, PAS/E&M(7) advised that the Administration intended to introduce the regulation in early 1999.
11.Concerning the enforcement of dust control in construction sites, OHC reported that caisson works, which accounted for 30% to 40% of silicosis, had been prohibited since 1996. Members noted that the Administration had improved the control of dust in construction sites by requiring contractors to use better-designed machines and to sprinkle construction sites with water. They also noted that publicity efforts would be conducted to promote the use of the above measures.
12.In explaining the geographical distribution of occupational health clinics, OHC pointed out that the second clinic had been planned to cover West Kowloon and the New Territories because of the large population there. Members were however assured that both the new clinic and the first clinic in Kwun Tong would provide service to people from all over Hong Kong. At their request, OHC agreed to examine the need to open one more clinic on Hong Kong island after the second clinic was opened.
13.On the ability of the pilot occupational safety and health service centre to serve 30,000 workers a year as claimed in the paper, OHC explained that rather than providing medical care, the new service centre was designed to provide initial medical screening (urine tests, tests to check blood pressure, pulmonary function, eyesight, etc.) and health advice only. As such, although the centre would be staffed by one occupational safety officer and two nurses only, there should be no difficulty for it to serve 30,000 workers a year.
14.In response to a member's call to assess the effectiveness of the existing occupational safety policy by comparing the local statistics on industrial accidents with those of other countries like Japan, representatives of the Administration stressed that as the criteria for working out the statistics varied in different countries, improvements in Hong Kong's safety record might be better measured by comparing the present performance with previous performances, instead of just comparing with other countries. Members noted that according to past figures, the number of industrial accidents in Hong Kong had been steadily decreasing. They also noted that as the implementation of safety management systems in government projects had proved to be successful in reducing accidents, the Administration would introduce new legislation in the following legislative session to make it compulsory for employers to establish safety management systems for high-risk industrial undertakings.
15.In addressing a member's concern about fire safety in commercial buildings built before 1975, where existing fire safety legislation did not apply, representatives of the Administration advised that the Security Bureau would be convening a meeting with all relevant bureaux and departments to discuss fire safety facilities in these buildings in the near future. One of the items on the agenda would be the application of the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance to the enhancement of fire safety in these buildings. Members also noted that to ensure safety in public areas of these buildings, LD had conducted joint inspections with the Fire Services Department and that such joint efforts would continue.
V.Review on the Supplementary Labour Scheme and Review on manpower needs for the construction and textiles and clothing industries
(Information package from the Administration circulated to all PLC Members by general despatch on 22 December 1997)
16.The Deputy Secretary for Education and Manpower (DS/E&M) briefed members on the Administration's information paper on the review of the Supplementary Labour Scheme (SLS), highlighting the key recommendations put forward as a result of the review.
17.Some members strongly felt that the Administration should shelve the Construction Labour Importation Scheme (CLIS). They opined that the CLIS was a most insensitive move on the part of the Government given the worsening unemployment situation brought about by the recent economic slump. It was also unnecessary as there was already the SLS, under which 1,000 out of 3,000 workers imported were construction workers. Instead of proceeding with the CLIS, in which case public resentment would be intense, they called upon the Administration to map out measures to help local workers tie over the economic recession.
The unemployment problem
18.Regarding the unemployment situation, the Secretary for Education and Manpower (SEM) stressed that the Administration fully recognised the need to protect the employment interests of local workers in the light of the prevailing economic situation, and would endeavour to help the unemployed to re-enter the workforce. He said that the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) had recently convened an inter-departmental/bureau meeting involving also the major training institutions to take stock of the latest labour market situation and discuss what more could be done to help the unemployed. Three additional measures on top of all the existing measures were drawn up as a result of the meeting. First, the EMB would compile and publish a concise but comprehensive pamphlet, setting out all the various services available to those who became unemployed, including employment assistance, training and retraining services and social welfare services, as well as their rights and benefits under labour laws. Second, EMB would work with relevant departments to see how the quality of information on job vacancies could be improved with a view to ensuring that the training and retraining programme would be targeted more precisely at meeting the latest needs of the labour market. Third, extra efforts would be made to co-ordinate the publicity on training and retraining opportunities for the unemployed.
19.The Deputy Chairman drew members attention to the fact that some employers were also making efforts to keep the unemployment rate down. Cases where employers went into agreement with employees to freeze salary increase or even to cut wages to prevent lay-offs were quoted as examples. She also stressed the importance of identifying displaced workers career preferences in providing assistance to them.
20.Mr LEE Kai-ming pointed out that displaced workers had little choice. It was therefore very important that the Administration should ensure that the building boom over the coming decade could offer them a better chance of employment. Ms CHAN Yuen-han stressed the need for more proactive measures to address the unemployment problem and urged the Administration to consider the proposals of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions to introduce unemployment allowance in Hong Kong and to restructure the training and retraining mechanisms to facilitate more active response to changing market needs. She also urged the Administration to improve the employment conditions of the construction industry to reduce wastage and attract new entrants, and to provide full Comprehensive Social Security Assistance to displaced workers receiving retraining notwithstanding the availability of retraining allowance.
21.SEM assured members that in anticipation of the high demand for labour in the building and construction industry as a result of the Government's commitment to build 85,000 flats a year and the implementation of related infrastructural projects, the employment conditions would improve not only in the construction industry but also in related trades such as interior decoration and transport. The opening of the new airport, which would require substantial labour, would also help to ease the unemployment problem. To address members concerns, he undertook to provide a paper on the measures taken to tackle the unemployment problem for further deliberation at the next Panel meeting.
22.Responding to some members criticism of LD's performance in assisting displaced employees from Yaohan Department Store and Peregrine Investments Holdings to find new jobs, representatives of LD emphasised that LD had in both cases reacted quickly. Members noted that in Yaohan's case, LD had registered nearly 1,000 requests for job placement service on the day that Yaohan went into liquidation. In the weeks that followed, over 1,000 job interviews had been arranged, resulting in 200 successful cases. They assured members that although many former employees of Yaohan preferred to find jobs themselves or receive retraining, LD would continue to follow up and provide placement assistance where necessary. They also pointed out that as many former employees of Yaohan were very experienced and had been receiving salaries higher than the average, more job matching difficulties had been encountered despite efforts to explain the situation to both sides. Furthermore, many of them were part-time workers who often found jobs for themselves. Members noted that in Peregrine's case, LD had immediately set up an enquiries hot-line to provide assistance. However, apart from some clerical staff who had sought assistance, there were few requests from investment professionals since most of them preferred to find jobs through their own connections.
Details about the Construction Labour Importation Scheme
23.Having assured members that the unemployment problem was under the Administration's close scrutiny, the Administration maintained that despite the rising unemployment, the CLIS was necessary as a safety valve to ease any bottleneck in labour supply if local workers were genuinely not available to fill the vacancies. They also assured members that in parallel with the CLIS, the Government would try its best to ensure that priority of employment would be given to local workers by enhancing training and retraining for local workers, and the intermediate trade test. Refuting claims that the CLIS intended to bring in 9,000 to 20,000 foreign workers to suppress wages of local workers, the Administration also clarified that the figure was only the projected additional labour requirements in the construction industry and was not the target number of workers to be imported. They stressed that the purpose of the CLIS was to ensure the timely completion of the planned housing and infrastructural projects and that the number of imported workers, if any, would be too insignificant to have any notable impact on local wages.
24.In assuring members that the CLIS would not affect local workers employment opportunities, representatives of the Administration stressed that in implementing the CLIS, the Administration would strictly adhere to its stated policy of ensuring priority of employment for local workers by means of the Intermediate Trade Test, the specified local recruitment period and centralised publicity on job vacancies and training opportunities. Members noted that the Intermediate Trade Test could facilitate placement of local workers as employers would have to take on all local workers who had passed the test before they would be allowed to import workers under the CLIS. They also noted that the Administration had already secured placement support from employers for workers who had passed the test.
25.As for the provision of training and retraining to boost local supply, SEM emphasised that the Administration's prime aim had always been to meet the demand for construction labour as far as possible through sustained, flexible and intensive training and retraining of local workers. Mr HO Sai-chu supplemented that the various training bodies had agreed to adjust their current training and retraining programmes in response to market needs and the employment situation.
26.On the reduction of wastage, SEM advised that the quadrilateral Working Group on Training and Retraining for the Construction Industry had been exploring the possibility of improving the terms of employment of the construction industry.
27.As regards the attraction of new blood to the industry, members noted that CITA was offering new courses to train up displaced workers prepared to join the construction industry.
28.In conclusion, SEM stressed that the CLIS was only a proposal and that public consultation was still under way. Results of the consultation as well as members views would be presented to the Executive Council for final decision. Members were assured that the Government would take full and careful account of public views, present economic climate and prevailing labour market conditions before making a decision. SEM also undertook to inform members of the decision as soon as practicable.
29.Concluding the discussion, the Chairman urged the Administration to seriously consider members views expressed at this meeting and be prepared for possible massive lay-offs in various sectors after the Chinese New Year.
30.The meeting ended at 4:30 pm.
Provisional Legislative Council Secretariat
18 February 1998