Govt contract workers shortchanged

Legislator Wong Kwok-hing revealed Monday that more than half of workers employed in jobs outsourced by the government are paid less than the minimum wage rate.

That is, more than 15,000 workers on contract to 32 government departments, are getting below minimum wage.

There are 30,286 outsourced workers employed on 4,830 contracts.

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), has the most outsourced workers, or 11,574, and most of them were paid less than the required minimum wage, or 8,807.

"From the FEHD's case, you can see how serious the problem is," said Wong.

He had surveyed the 32 government departments and collected employment information on outsourced workers, agency workers, and non-civil service contract staff.

He calculated the monthly salary at the minimum wage rate as HK$5,824, assuming eight working hours a day and 26 days a month.

Wong stated that the government had failed to set a good example as the largest employer in the city, adding that will contribute to the deterioration of labor relations in general in Hong Kong.

Wong indicated a "special case" at the Marine Department.

The department has issued as many as 3,478 contracts but through which only hired 191 outsourced workers, according to Wong's survey.

He said there is a possibility that the department avoids the employer's responsibility to a large extent by fragmenting its outsourcing employment.

The Marine Department denied allegations that its contract workers were underpaid.

A spokesman for the department said on Monday that the department issued around 3,500 contracts in 2010.

Among them, 80 to 90 per cent are signed for regular or unscheduled maintenance work on over 700 government ships, the spokesman said.

The contracts were all short-term ones, whose periods spanned from several hours to one month, he said.

Different from other outsourced workers who will benefit from the minimum wage such as security and cleaning workers, the department said it uses higher paid skilled workers.

As a result of the nature of short-term employment, these workers actually are paid higher than usual, the spokesman said.

Associate Professor Andy Chan Wing-chiu at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who specializes in pay and benefits and labor-management relations, noted the situation was "unusual" in normal employment relations.

But he said he could not expand on his remark in the absence of the details of the contracts.

Legislator Wong indicated that the government should create more permanent civil service positions rather than relying so much on outsourcing services.

The survey led by Wong suggests that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the FEHD have more outsourced positions than they have for permanent staff.

Wong observed more than nine times the number of outsourced workers than the permanent staff in the Government Property Agency.

Wong called on the government to improve treatment of its outsourced workers.

He suggested that both the lunch breaks and rest days be calculated into working hours to avoid a de facto salary drop after the minimum wage law takes effect in May.

The government announced last Wednesday that it will make up salary differences created by the minimum wage law to the outsourced service contractors.

But it insisted the arrangement for lunch breaks and rest days should remain unchanged as stipulated by the workers' original contracts.

-China Daily/Asia News Network