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However, Legislative Councillor Leung Yiu-chung who is also from the pro-labour Neighbourhood and Worker’s Service Centre says the government outsourcing policy was an attempt to introduce market forces and reduce costs in the provision of public services. He says that under the “big market, small government” principle, the government would not set up concrete guidelines.

“Flexibility for contractors is essential in outsourcing. Who would still tender when there are so many guidelines restricting flexibility?”

Accordingly, Leung does not think the government will do much to protect the welfare of outsourced workers.

“The contract does not protect the workers. The government simply looks to see  if it fits within the law. In outsourcing [services], the government doesn’t care about workers’ welfare.”

Most government departments adopt the lowest bid wins system while selecting private contractors. According to a report conducted by the government’s Efficiency Unit, over 80 per cent of government departments awarded tenders to companies offering the lowest price. In order to offer the lowest price for the bid, contractors tend to offer workers wages no higher than the statutory minimum wage rate.

An attempt has been made to change the situation. Starting from July, a revised outsourcing guideline states government departments have to take into account the wages contractors offer their workers in awarding contracts. However, according to a written reply from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), “…up to now, the FEHD does not see significant change in the contractors’ committed wage offers since the revision of the relevant guideline in late June this year”.

The Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau said in its reply that it was not possible to assess the impact of the revised guidelines on workers’ wages as departments are allowed to determine the weightings of the assessment criteria when outsourcing, depending on the operational needs.

Paul Yip Siu-fai, professor at Hong Kong University’s Department of Social Work and Social Administration, says it would be best if the government abolished the whole outsourcing system, but he acknowledges this is unlikely.

Yip says the root problem of outsourcing is that neither the government nor society place much value on workers. He adds that in countries such as Britain and Australia, there are much heavier punishments for industrial accidents and deprivation of workers’ rights.

“The deterrent effect of our laws and punishments is weak,” says Yip. “We haven’t made good use of the laws we have in Hong Kong.” This is particularly true in the case of outsourced workers.

Edited by Joey Kwan