The government has been outsourcing public services and reducing the number of public servants in order to lower costs and promote efficiency within departments since the 1990s. Currently, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, Government Property Agency, Housing Services Department and Leisure and Cultural Services Department are the major departments which employ outsourced services. Together, they account for nearly 90 per cent of all government outsourced workers. Most of these workers are on low wages and lack sufficient protection.
Kwok Lai-shan works as a cleaner, for another private contractor, which she does not want to name. She has been on the job for six years and at 71 finds it is physically arduous. What is more, Kwok says she is required to work on statutory holidays, and when the black rainstorm signal or the number eight gale or storm signal are up. Despite this, she and many others are paid the minimum wage.
Kwok recalls that a few years back, she and six co-workers went to the boss to ask for a raise.
“We did reflect our opinions, but the company told us if we don’t want to work, then we should sign the resignation letter,” Kwok says. “But you know, not everyone can afford to lose the job, and with it the few thousand dollars [a month].”
Law Pui-shan, the Policy Research Officer of the Hong Kong Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs, says workers have minimal bargaining power. Many outsourced workers are not well educated, some are elderly and are afraid of losing their jobs because it would be hard to find another one.
“Contractors don’t need to use guns or knives to intimidate the workers,” Law says, “but they tell the workers that they may lose their job if they disobey.”
Law points out the current situation is abnormal because there is a greater demand for workers than there is a supply.
“If the contractor lacks workers, it should be the employer who doesn’t want you to leave, and should offer better working conditions. But the workers are so scared of the employers.”
Law says this is because there is little protection for outsourced workers. The government will only investigate if there is a complaint. However, workers are afraid to complain because they are afraid of losing their job. The only legal safeguards of workers’ welfare are the Employment Ordinace and the Standard Employment Contract.
But Law says the guidelines in the Standard Employment Contract are very vague, especially those on work safety. It simply states contractors need to follow the Employment Ordinance and to protect the work safety and health of workers. “That is it,” Law says. “But how do you protect? How do you implement? Are there any specific policies?”
Under the existing outsourced services tendering system, private contractors are regulated through a demerit point system. Those contractors who have had a certain number of points deducted will be barred from submitting tenders for contracts. But critics say the system is ineffective. Law Pui-shan says the “buying out” of holidays, problems with work safety, the lack of severance payment and forced resignations have not been included in the demerit points system.
“The demerit points system can no longer successfully monitor private contractors, and protect the rights of workers.” Law says.
According to Law, the government outsourced the responsibility to protect working conditions when it outsourced services. The plight of workers is exacerbated, she says by the “alliances” formed by private contractors.
“It is like contractors allying with each other, one takes the tender for the first three years while the other one succeeds for another three years.” says Law. “The government does not want to offend the private contractors, because it is hard to get contractors now, the government is worried that no contractors will tender and no one will do the cleaning.”
Law estimates there are fewer than 20 contractors bidding for cleaning contracts and suspects this may be why the government is unwilling to improve the monitoring of private contractors. She says the government should encourage new contractors to compete.
Other than that, she thinks the government should strengthen regulations and improve the demerit system, clearly list work safety regulations and step up inspections. Most importantly, Law says there should be more communication among government departments, especially with the Labour Department, to form a strong network to monitor private contractors.