The recent controversy about possible financial support being extended to blue card holders sheds light on divergent views on the role of non-resident workers. Lack of transparency in labour importation policies is to blame, observers say
By Tony Lai
Shortly after the Macau Chamber of Commerce proposed in early August that local authorities should consider giving out MOP3,000 (US$375) each in consumption vouchers to non-resident employees as part of the government’s COVID-19 financial relief package, many residents immediately vented out their dissatisfaction online towards the influential local business association. They accused the chamber of testing the water for the government, and argued that resources should be invested in locals first.
While the officials have immediately addressed the situation and pledged no financial support would be given to non-residents, this simmering tension between residents and non-resident workers, which has long been evident in the city, might continue to fluctuate over the grim prospect of the local economy and labour market.
“The authorities have set up so many hurdles to prevent residents from getting the financial support and now they just give out MOP3,000 to non-resident employees?”, “Why doesn’t the chamber fight for more support for residents?”, “Luckily many residents have voiced their opposition; otherwise, the government would really do it”, … These were some of the numerous comments left by netizens online in regards to the suggestions by the Macau Chamber of Commerce.
Political commentator Nelson Kot Man Kam believes this indignation is the result of the ineffectiveness of the government efforts in providing prompt assistance for residents during the city’s latest community COVID-19 outbreak in June and July. The authorities have pledged two packages of MOP10 billion each for the public in face of the negative economic impact caused by the pandemic, and the first round of relief measures — including one-off subsidies for eligible employees and employers — have been available since mid-August while there have not been details about the second MOP10-billion package yet.
“Those local employees and employers that are not eligible for the first MOP10-billion package have already felt inflamed and overlooked by the government,” Mr Kot says, highlighting the suggestion concerning non-resident workers only intensified the exasperation among those residents. Though non-resident employees have suffered the same like residents in this latest outbreak and in the past two years and more after the onset of the pandemic, he adds: “Non-resident workers, unfortunately, have become the bull’s eye [in this wave of public vexation].”
Lack of transparency
“The tension between locals and non-resident workers is always existent in Macau,” says Eilo Yu Wing Yat, an associate professor of government and public administration at the University of Macau. “This tension does not only happen in Macau but also in other parts of the world… because locals are worried of enjoying less resources over the competition with non-locals.”
The academic adds the issue of non-resident employees has always been “politicalised” here. For instance, the government has made numerous pledges throughout the past decade that the positions of casino croupiers — which are considered by locals as high-paid jobs that do not require specific skills — would not open for labour importation.
The “lack of transparency for a long time” in the labour importation policies and measures has majorly resulted in and maintained this tension between the two sides, the scholar adds. “Although the authorities publish the data about non-resident employees on a regular basis, there is no detailed breakdown on the distribution of non-resident employees across different job positions that the public wants to know more about,” he illustrates. “There have also been talks for years that many local companies only hire residents in exchange for the labour importation quota.”
The recent downturn of the local economy and worsening labour market due to the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the tension once again, Professor Yu says. Macau’s gross domestic product (GDP) plunged by three consecutive quarters, with the latest drop of 39.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2022 because of the latest local community outbreak and waves of sporadic cases in the nearby regions, the latest official data show. Since the start of the pandemic, the city only reported a positive growth in two out of 10 quarters.
Local employment has also deteriorated in recent months. According to the Statistics and Census Service, the territory’s overall unemployment rate stood at 4.1 per cent in the May-July period of 2022, the highest level since the September-November period of 2005, while the unemployment rate for residents only reached 5.4 per cent in the May-July period of 2022, the highest level since such data was available in 2008. The overall underemployment rate in Macau between May and July 2022—employees who work fewer than 35 hours per week involuntarily—also reached a record high of 13.4%, the first time such data was available in 1996.
“Ensuring local employment is a major key to social stability,” legislator Nick Lei Leong Wong agrees. “If the local unemployment rate soars, it will create different social problems.”
In a question-and-answer session at the Legislative Assembly in early August, Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng pledges the authorities adopt “a proactive attitude” in taming the local jobless rate, and job positions in any industries would be made available to residents as long as they were interested.
The Labour Affairs Bureau also said in a statement that the authorities held 17 job matching sessions in August alone to offer 889 job positions for residents in collaboration with gaming and resort operators, the Macau Association of Banks and the Macau Federation of Trade Unions. As of end-August, the authorities have successfully helped 4,156 residents to land a new job, exceeding the tally of 3,233 for the entire year of 2021, the bureau added.
Besides a wide array of measures rolled out by the authorities to tackle local unemployment, including subsidised vocational training courses for residents, the government has also slashed the size of non-resident workers. Nonetheless, Mr Lei underscores that although there has been a significant decline in the number of non-resident employees in the past two years, the unemployment rate for residents has continued to remain at a high level. Latest figures from the Labour Affairs Bureau show the number of non-resident workers declined by 17.4 per cent — or over 34,100 employees less — from 196,538 in end-2019 to nearly 162,400 in end-June 2022.
The authorities, thus, should not “blindly” shrink the size of non-residents but examine carefully the job needs of residents, he adds. “The government should cut the labour importation quota in job positions that residents are willing to and capable of, including administrative positions in gaming operators, banks, brand marketing and retail,” the legislator remarks. “The authorities should ensure companies make room for residents in these job positions.”
Key to SMEs
“Different stakeholders have different views in regards to the issue of resident and non-resident workers,” says Fong Kin Fu, president of the Federal General Commercial Association of Macau Small and Medium Enterprises. “The residents who have lost their jobs in recent times are usually workers in the sectors of gaming, construction and others, and many of them want to look for a new job in the same segment,” the businessman said. “But it’s difficult to do so given the current status of the gaming industry.”
In the first seven months of this year, gross gaming revenue fell by 53.6 per cent year on year to MOP 26.67 billion, representing only 15.3 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The lacklustre performance was due to the COVID-19 impact, as well as the heightened supervision over the gaming sector, namely, the demise of local junket operators over the arrests of junket bosses Alvin Chau Cheok Wa and Levo Chan Weng Lin since the end of last year.
“Despite the higher unemployment rate of residents in recent times, local small-and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] continue to face difficulties in recruitment as residents are not interested in working for SMEs due to lower salaries,” Mr Fong illustrates, assuring the importance of non-local labour force in the local economy, particularly the operation of small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
While there have been reports that the government has strictly cut enterprises’ quota for labour importation in light of the surging jobless rate of residents, the SME chamber president indicates most of the cases happened to the unused quota of companies. “For instance, if a company has a quota of 10 non-resident workers, the authorities might only renew the quota for nine of them; for those that only have a few quotas, they have mostly remained unscathed,” he adds.
Transparent rules and measures to expedite upward mobility for residents are also important aside from simply providing jobs. “The public knows it is unrealistic for Macau not to rely on non-residents,” says Mr Lei. “For instance, non-residents are of paramount importance in the development of some emerging and hi-tech industries here.”
“What is essential is that the government should facilitate companies to have clear mechanisms and plans to nurture residents to fill up the mid-to-high level management positions, [some of which are occupied by non-residents at the moment],” the legislator illustrates. “Otherwise, there will never be chances for locals to move upward in the career ladder.”
At the end of the day, resident and non-resident workers should not be placed in opposition to each other. “[What residents ultimately concern] is not about non-resident workers… but about whether they can find jobs and whether they can find suitable jobs,” Professor Yu adds.