Conflicting calls

José I. Duarte
It’s difficult not to feel some empathy for the Secretary for the Economy as he faces some (severely) conflicting interests and trends related to his portfolio. Some require careful balancing. However, the pressure from some vocal sectors – and to be seen dealing with their demands, which may be a short term imperative – may contribute to making some of the issues more intractable in the future. The labour market is a good example of this.
The current economic prosperity could not have been achieved without the significant contribution of non-resident workers. In some cases, the required qualifications and expertise are not available in Macau. Should we discard the hiring of external workers then those skills would not be available at all, period. The effect would obviously be that some goods and services would not be provided and the community, as a whole, would be the poorer for it. But the problem goes beyond the issue of qualifications alone; it’s also a matter of absolute figures. The number of residents would not be sufficient, even if the qualification pool was adequate, to sustain the current levels of activity – and, again, we would all be poorer for that. If anything, the labour market conditions can be a major block to further growth, not to mention the diversification we keep fancying about.
In this context, with virtual full employment, to claim that non-residents are stealing the ‘rice bowl’ of the locals is a patent misrepresentation. If anything, we could claim that they are helping to increase everyone’s rice portion. (There may be exceptions but these can be attributed to other factors). I want to believe those who make these claims are aware that their case does not stand up to the cold light of reason. But, then, it is not reason these claims appeal to. Such statements, in fact, are instrumental in justifying the need to ‘protect’ the locals and grant them special privileges. That is, they seek to pressure the political and economic operators to provide some kind of ‘affirmative action’ that further discriminates in favour of those who are already the most privileged.
In some respects, the government has in the past felt the need to give a nod to these sorts of claims. The problem with such an approach, no matter how much it may seem expedient today, is that it tends to store up further troubles down the road. Multiplying entitlements that are not linked to merit and skills does not really resolve any structural problem – and there are several, well-identified and stubborn ones. Increasing the bias of public policies against non-resident workers may mute some voices now but will only increase the sense of entitlement of some. Demands will keep coming again and again, and satisfaction will only be achieved by more and more benefits and privileges. That does not pave the way to a fair and harmonious society.