We need to reserve more jobs for local people

Updated: 2014-11-11 07:41

By Paul Surtees(HK Edition)

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We need to reserve more jobs for local people

There is much to be said for importing foreign experts to undertake highly skilled jobs for which their specialized overseas training and experience probably give them the edge over local candidates.

In many countries, for example, luxury hotels are often run by Swiss hotel general managers who manage their establishments with the precision of a Swiss watch. This is expected of them as they have been trained to the highest levels in those justly famous Swiss hotel management schools. They seldom attract complaints about stealing local jobs because they are good value for money.

But the following tale of two restaurants gives us cause to be more discerning in opening up certain job markets to foreign workers, particularly those below professional level. There is also the danger of depriving our own local work force, especially those job openings in the service sector, of employment opportunities if hiring of foreign workers is not carefully regulated.

Admittedly, with a current unemployment rate in Hong Kong of just over 3 percent, this is not currently a pressing economic problem although the jobless rate for locals in the food and beverage services sector is said to be rising.

Recently, I had contrasting experiences at two Hong Kong restaurants. In one, the waitresses were foreign, from another part of East Asia. The level of service they exhibited was abysmal, and that was in a supposedly up-market establishment. They spent much more time chatting among themselves than in paying the slightest attention to the hungry guests, who had to wait a long time before even a menu reached them.

Such inept foreign waitresses clearly untrained and certainly not properly supervised by their compatriot manager, offer nothing of value and neither are irreplaceable in terms of occupational expertise. A local person could do no worse, and very likely would do a much better job. The true reason to employ these foreign staff is because they will accept lower pay than most Hong Kong residents in a similar position. Thus their cheap labor (albeit untrained and ineffective) undercuts the employment opportunities of Hong Kong people, and should no longer be allowed.

In this case, their deplorable service standards detracted from the potential profits of their employer. I noticed that several other would-be diners were rightly irritated about being ignored by the supposed waiting staff, and having sat there in vain awaiting the menu for many minutes gave up and left, before ordering anything! So that restaurant may save on salaries, but it loses out on income from customers; and, of course, repeat customers to such sloppy establishments would be few and far between.

By contrast, the entirely local Hong Kong staff and manager in a rival dining establishment were the very picture of efficiency, offering customer services of the highest order, even though it was but a mid-range restaurant.

So, though it might be reasonable - even desirable - to import highly-skilled foreign labor; there is little to be said in support of importing semi-skilled, or even untrained, cheap labor of the types described above.

In a number of other countries, such as Thailand, certain specified occupations are rightly reserved only for their own citizens. For example, no foreigner can work in Thailand as a manual laborer or carpenter, secretary, hairdresser, shop assistant, bricklayer or hat-maker. Their own people can readily do all such jobs competently and are rightly given priority in recruitment. That type of employment restriction, in terms of unskilled or moderately-skilled labor, should be far more widely enforced here in Hong Kong.

We could introduce the localization of employment, starting with low-skilled service workers such as waiters and waitresses, and offering exceptions to those rare positions which require expertise not commonly found locally. Such a localization policy in fact has a major precedent in the Hong Kong government's civil service prior to the handover of this former British colony to China. And it has turned out to be a huge success!

The author is a Hong Kong-based commentator, who has worked in many other countries and written about various trades and industries.

(HK Edition 11/11/2014 page10)