The new regime for imported labour aims to protect the rights of local workers, however, it increases costs for employers Macau’s new regime for the hiring of non-resident labour came into effect on April 26. While it is looked on with distrust by bosses and workers, migrant workers are still trying to understand what is at stake. For Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai On, the new regime – comprised of the Imported Labour Law and several administrative regulations – mainly acts as a protection for local workers’ employment rights. But it is still a work in progress. The government is currently drafting by-laws to further regulate the ratios between local and imported workers, and the withdrawal of imported labour. Related regulations will soon be passed to the Executive Council for discussions and approval, according to Chui. However, the Secretary for Economy and Finance, Francis Tam Pak Yuen, has already announced that the ratio of local to imported workers in the construction industry will be set at a minimum of 1:1. Last month, the Labour Affairs Bureau (DSAL) carried out spot checks on construction sites to monitor the proportions – in several places the number of imported workers was higher than the proposed ratio. Hard to understand One of the problems with the new imported labour regime is that it is not crystal clear. For instance, the ratios to be implemented between the number of local and imported workers won’t be fixed and can vary within the same industry. According to the coordinator of the executive committee of the Standing Committee for the Coordination of Social Affairs, Shuen Ka Hung, each industry will be given a general proportion of imported to local workers. However, those figures may vary according to the “actual conditions” of different companies, added Shuen, who also heads the DSAL. As for the 1:1 ratio for the construction industry, it has already drawn criticism from both employers and employees. Tommy Lau, president of the Macau Association of Building Contractors and Developers stresses such a ratio is too strict. Lau, who is also a lawmaker, says that after construction restarts at full steam at Sands China’s sites 5 and 6 in Cotai, together with the construction of the light railway, there simply won’t be enough local manpower to cope with the demand. According to previous information provided by Las Vegas Sands, 10,000 to 12,000 construction workers will be employed by the company after the full restart of its stalled hotel-casino projects on the strip. Even some local labour rights activists agree that it is not possible to keep a 1:1 ratio in such a scenario. However, their main concern is not the new regime, but the government’s capacity to enact it. In the government’s hands Although it was designed to make the importation of labour more transparent, the new regime is quite arbitrary. The government can revoke a permit at any moment, so long as such action is “duly justified through plausible reasons of public interest, namely those which result from changes in the economic situation.” Under the new regime, the acceptance of applications for the hiring of non-resident workers, the concession of new permits and the renewal of previously conceded permits, may also be temporarily suspended by the government, with no time limits. This covers only certain professional categories, or economic or industrial activities. For now, the government has announced that, in addition to what is already the case for croupiers and professional drivers, floor supervisors in casinos are also set to become “local only” jobs. Extra costs Businesses say the new regime means higher costs because it introduces a compulsory “employment fee”. Employers are now required to pay a MOP200 monthly fee for each non-resident worker hired. To assist the troubled manufacturing industry, this sector will enjoy a 50 percent discount on the levy. Domestic workers are exempted. Employers who fail to pay the levy can face fines from MOP300-1,000 per non-resident worker. The fees will be collected by the Security Social Fund and used for social security purposes regarding local residents. There were 73,932 non-resident workers in Macau at the end of February, according to official data. Of those, 6,311 worked in the manufacturing sector and 14,534 were domestic workers. More than half of Macau’s imported workers come from the mainland – 40,914, followed by the Philippines – 10,817 – and Vietnam – 6,637. The hospitality and food and beverage sectors employ the most – more than 16,000. Domestic workers are the second biggest group. Not happy “The costs of hiring non-resident workers will be higher and the proceedings to get permits for imported labour are more complex,” complains the president of the board of directors of the powerful Macau Chamber of Commerce, Hoi Sai Un. In his opinion, this is an extra burden that can especially hurt local Small and Medium-sizedEnterprises (SMEs). The number of local companies employing non-resident workers more than doubled from 3,228 in mid-2007 to around 6,800 last year, according to official data. Most are SMEs. Job and a bed The costs to business don’t stop there. Dormitories provided by employers to imported workers, are also obliged to comply with a clear minimum set of health and living conditions. Each imported worker is now entitled to a place to stay with a usable area of no less than 3.5 square metres, and also to his or her own bed. If a dormitory is shared by more than one worker, each of the bedrooms must come with a fan. The rooms need to have a bathroom equipped with a hot/cold shower facility and a washing machine for every eight imported workers or less. If no accommodation is provided, employers have to pay a minimum of MOP500 per month as housing allowance to each imported worker. Poor conditions The minimum living conditions stated in the new regime seem not to be standard so far, at least in the construction sector. Just days before the new regime came into effect, the DSAL led two raids on construction sites in Macau where it found illegal dormitories with poor hygiene conditions. One of the raids targeted Galaxy Macau’s construction site, in Cotai, were the DSAL detected a complex of illegal dormitories for around 800 imported workers. At the site, reporters found a notice that alerted workers about the DSAL’s inspections, including dates. Raids can work on construction sites, but are harder in the case of imported domestic helpers. The new regime says that if they are to stay at their work places, employers have to give their domestic helpers a space in the house that can protect their privacy, as well as provide them with basic living facilities especially a bed, wardrobe and bathroom for their use. But, without a complaint, it will be hard to detect offences. Locals want priority If employers are not happy with the new regime, the Federation of Trade Unions of Macau (FAOM), the territory’s biggest worker’s organisation, is also cautious. For the federation, the new regime alone is not enough. “The government should ensure that local workers’ employment rights are not impaired,” the FAOM stressed in a statement. Meanwhile, the federation is studying the implementation of a minimum wage in Macau. According to the FAOM, if a minimum wage for foreign employees is set, that would prevent cheap imported labour and what the federation labels as “unfair competition”. The FAOM accuses the high percentage of foreign labour of eroding the bargaining power of local residents when it comes to improving their working conditions and increasing their wages. This is why it wants to ensure that the use of imported labour does not unduly affect wage rates for local workers. When to import workers The new regime aims to overcome the non-existence or insufficiency of resident workers able to do the job in a cost-effective and efficient manner. It says a non-resident worker shall be hired on a time-limited basis and resident workers shall have precedence, both in regards to the hiring, as well as keeping an employment position, stresses the regime. Other general principles of the regime claim non-resident workers shall be given equal treatment to resident workers, in regards to rights, obligations and working conditions. Most importantly, the hiring of non-resident workers shall respect the principle of remuneration equality for work of an identical nature or value regardless of whether such is provided by a resident or non-resident worker. Non-resident workers are legally understood as the people without right of residence in Macau who are authorised to temporarily provide a professional activity under an employment contract. Labour Day trouble This year’s Labour Day demonstration left 41 people injured, among them two journalists and 32 police officers. Confrontations between the demonstrators and the authorities started when the marchers tried to break through police barricades while trying to gain access to Almeida Ribeiro Avenue, one of the city’s main arteries. Conflicts began when the demonstrators tried to ram previously positioned police barriers and the authorities fought back with tear gas. As clashes escalated, the police then resorted to pepper spray and water cannons in a bid to disperse the protesters who then reacted with bottles, stones and flag poles. According to media reports, the demonstrators – estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 – started their march in the beginning of the afternoon and they were led by local worker’s associations. The activists’ main demands were more social housing, better job protection for local residents, a more effective fight against corruption and a tougher stance on illegal worker.