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LCQ1: Manpower of construction industry
     Following is a question by the Dr Hon Lo Wai-kwok and a reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Eric Ma, in the Legislative Council today (March 22):

     According to a survey on labour shortage in the construction industry conducted by the Hong Kong Construction Association in November last year, the shortage rate of construction workers stood at about 7.5 per cent, which was lower than the corresponding rates of 18.6 per cent and 12.8 per cent in the same period of the preceding two years. While the manpower shortage problem has been slightly alleviated, the industry is still plagued by the problem of an ageing labour force. At present, over 40 per cent of construction workers (i.e. about 170 000 people) are 50 years old or above. Some members of the construction industry have pointed out that various infrastructure projects should commence in an orderly manner in accordance with the future manpower supply and demand situation of the construction industry. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) given that the first batch of railway projects (including the Northern Link and Kwu Tung Station, the Tuen Mun South Extension and the East Kowloon Line) under the Railway Development Strategy 2014 is expected to commence in 2018 and 2019 the soonest, whether the Government has explored ways to ensure that such new railway projects commence as scheduled or even ahead of schedule, with a view to making good use of the construction industry manpower to be released following the completion of the works projects of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao-Bridge and the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link within the next one to two years, thereby avoiding the recurrence of the situation where, owing to the concurrent commencement of a number of works projects, the projects concerned have to compete with each other for manpower; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;
(2) whether it will work out a list of infrastructure and public works projects prioritised according to their degree of urgency, for the purpose of improving the projection on the manpower supply and demand situation of the construction industry and the distribution of work, so as to ensure the sustainable development of the construction industry and avoid the situation where workers suffer from the plight of "dying of overwork at one time and of starvation at another"; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(3) whether it has, in the light of the lessons learnt from past experience, assessed the required numbers of workers and professionals when planning various public works projects, so as to facilitate the early planning of suitable complementary measures, including the formulation, after strengthening the communication with the relevant stakeholders, of project-based plans for importation of foreign labour; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?

     The Government has been implementing capital works projects in a continuous, timely and orderly manner with a view to improving people's quality of living, enhance the long-term competitiveness and promote the economic development of Hong Kong. At present, the demand for public facilities in the community is keen. The supply of land and housing is very tight. Our transport network is under tremendous pressure for expansion. Our ageing population also entails a pressing need for enhancing and expanding the healthcare facilities. As such, the Government and the construction industry are required to meet both the social development needs and the community's aspirations for living quality.
     To cope with the persistent manpower demand of the construction industry, we have been collaborating with the Construction Industry Council (CIC) in launching a host of measures. They include conducting assessments on the supply and demand of professionals and workers at appropriate junctures; developing progression pathways and carrying out promotions to attract new entrants to join the industry; and strengthening training for local construction workers to upgrade their skills to semi-skilled and skilled levels. From 2009 to 2016, the CIC has trained up more than 24 000 semi-skilled workers. About 60 per cent of them were under 35 years old and well below 46 which is the average age of the registered workers at present. This shows that many young people are interested in joining the industry. During the period of 2009 to present, the total number of registered workers has risen from 270 000 to 430 000 while that of registered skilled/semi-skilled workers has also risen from about 107 000 to 214 000.
     Under the overriding premise of according priority to the employment of local workers and safeguarding their wage level, contractors may apply to import skilled workers under the Supplementary Labour Scheme (SLS). We will also continue to encourage the industry to adopt designs and construction methods that require less labour input and support the CIC in establishing an innovation and technology application centre.
     My reply to the Dr Hon Lo Wai-kwok's question is as follows:
(1) Having regard to the indicative implementation window recommended in the Railway Development Strategy 2014, the Transport and Housing Bureau (THB) invited the Mass Transit Railway Corporation Limited (MTRCL) in February last year to submit proposals for the implementation of the Northern Link (and Kwu Tung Station), East Kowloon Line and Tuen Mun South Extension with a view to taking forward the new railway projects. The Bureau also invited the MTRCL in January this year to submit a proposal for the implementation of the Tung Chung West Extension (and Tung Chung East Station).

     The MTRCL submitted the proposal for the Tuen Mun South Extension to the Government in end December 2016, and will submit the proposals for the Northern Link (and Kwu Tung Station) and East Kowloon Line later this year. The THB, the Highways Department and relevant departments are evaluating the proposal for the Tuen Mun South Extension, and have requested the MTRCL to provide additional information and supplement details of the relevant proposal in order to ensure that its proposal will be practically feasible and bring maximum benefits to the community.
     The taking forward of new railway projects will be subject to the outcome of detailed engineering, environmental and financial studies relating to each project, as well as updated demand assessment and the availability of resources. The Government will implement new railway projects in an orderly manner in light of actual circumstances including the manpower situation of the construction industry. As an established procedure, the Government will consult the public on the detailed alignment, locations of stations, mode of implementation, cost estimate, mode of financing and actual implementation timetable prior to the finalisation of any new railway scheme.
(2) The Government has been all along conducting long-term planning for infrastructure projects and taking account of their actual needs, urgency and cost-effectiveness and the financial sustainability etc. when prioritising the projects. We would also assess the delivery capacity of the construction industry to ensure the smooth implementation of the projects. This can also serve to foster a steady and sustainable development of the construction industry.
     In addition, the Government collaborates with the CIC in formulating forecast on the overall construction output in both public and private sectors over a 10-year horizon. The results are regularly published for the information of the industry and the public so that the industry can carry out early planning of their resources deployment to meet the future workload. According to the latest forecast published at the end of last year, the total construction output of the public and private sectors in the next five to 10 years will exceed the level of $300 billion, indicating a persistent high demand for construction services. In the long run, the total construction output will remain relatively steady. However, the implementation of public works projects has been constantly affected by the slow progress in obtaining funding approval in recent years. In this year, for example, it has come to an unprecedented situation that no new projects have been approved for the past eight months since last July. The "filibustering" in Legislative Council has caused the drastic fluctuations of the construction output and inevitably brought about the situation of "dying of overwork at one time and starvation at another". This may, in turn, undermine the willingness of new entrants to join the industry and affect the sustainable development of the industry.
(3) At appropriate junctures, the CIC conducts assessments of the supply and demand of manpower, including the professionals and workers, based on the latest situation.
     According to the latest report on manpower forecast for construction workers released by CIC in December 2016, the shortage of about 10 000 to 15 000 skilled workers will still persist in the next few years. Apart from various measures to step up recruiting and training up skilled workers, we also, in collaboration with the industry stakeholders, rolled out enhancement measures in April 2014 to expedite the preparatory works for SLS applications involving 26 trades with manpower shortage as submitted by public works contractors. With the launching of these enhancement measures, the average processing time for approving the applications has been shortened from about 7.5 months to the target of 6 months.
     The assessments in 2014 indicated that there was shortage of professionals in some disciplines. But based on the industry's views, the tough shortfall has been slightly alleviated at the moment. The CIC is currently updating the related forecast and will release the results in mid-2017.
     We will continue to liaise closely with the stakeholders to review the effectiveness of the current measures. We are also open to explore with the industry different viable options that can effectively increase the supply of skilled workers to meet the manpower demand for implementing capital works projects.
Ends/Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Issued at HKT 15:15
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