Lawmakers argue over six-month ban for imported labour

Friday, October 9, 2009
Issue 839, Page 2
Word count: 1293
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

The six-month job restriction proposed in the imported labour bill stimulated hours of heated debate during the final reading at the Legislative Assembly yesterday. No voting on any of the 44 articles was conducted.

The plenary meeting will continue at 3pm today with the presence of Secretary for Economy and Finance Francis Tam Pak Yuen and director of the Labour Affairs Bureau Shuen Ka Hung.

During the four hours of intense discussion where the first six articles were brought to the table, arguments were put forward only regarding Article 4 which, in brief, prevents non-local workers from changing jobs in Macau by introducing a six-month restriction period.

That means if a worker quits the job when the contract is still valid, to accept a better job offer or for other reasons, he or she is required to leave Macau for six months and only after that he or she will be allowed to enter the territory again to work for another company.

In contrast, if it is the employer who fires the worker, he or she is free to find a new job immediately without any constraints.

Some lawmakers argued that such mechanism is necessary to ensure stability in Macau’s business environment and market, while some insisted that it is “inhumane and unfair” as imported labour also have the right and freedom to choose and change jobs.

The six-month restriction was not in the initial draft of the bill which was passed in the first reading back in August 2008.

Leonel Alves was the lawmaker to begin the debate, and first questioned the government representatives on what kind of consultations they had done especially among the major non-local labour communities from the Philippines, Indonesia or mainland China.

Jose Pereira Coutinho was also concerned about the lack of proper consultations.

He referred to No. 111 and No. 112 international agreements that are applied on Macau regarding employment options and discrimination, as well as Articles 43 and 35 of the Macau Basic Law that say non-local residents in Macau enjoy the freedom to choose jobs and occupations as local residents.

“The bill contradicts to the above law and regulations and gives rise to discrimination… Workers can’t even choose to have a better job with higher salary,” Coutinho said.

Ng Kuok Cheong on the other hand said that the key is to limit the non-skilled imported labour quotas for casinos, because in the past imported workers in small and medium enterprises or domestic helpers were mostly “taken away” by casinos which offered better remuneration.

Kwan Tsui Hang, who represents the labour sector, said that if imported workers are allowed to change jobs randomly, the principle of these workers being supplementary to the local labour force will be at stake.

However, she deemed that the six-month restriction to certain extent jeopardised non-local workers’ rights and interests.

“After the first employment relationship is ended, the workers should leave Macau but at the same time should not be refrained from coming back at any time to work for another company,” Ms Kwan said.

She added that the labour sector is instead more concerned about introducing an imported labour ratio and deportation mechanism, which are absent in the bill despite over years of appeals.

The Secretary for Economy and Finance in giving his first round of response said the government had been keeping contact with employers and employees associations, and also exchanged a lot of opinions with officials from different countries, consul generals and labour ministers when they paid visit in Macau.

Mr Tam also said that the bill is just a “framework” to regulate the employment of non-local workers.

“We agree with the labour sector’s opinions very much and think that they can help the government protect employment of local workers more effectively.

“We will continue to listen to public opinions and may introduce them [the ratio and deportation mechanism] in administrative regulations,” Mr Tam said.

Leonel Alves then told the legislature he had heard of “inhumane treatments” to imported labour – excessive working hours especially among domestic helpers; physical abuse; and paying lesser salaries other than the amounts written in contracts.

“The problem is if it’s the employer who violates the contract first, why the worker cannot quit?” he asked.

Mr Alves also said that it is “infeasible” in reality even though an employer is able to hire another non-local resident immediately after laying off one, as it usually takes four to five months for a new imported worker to receive a work permit or commonly known as blue card.

David Chow Kam Fai pointed out that Macau is a “free economy and society” and should let employers and employees choose who to hire or where to work.

Mr Chow, as a businessman, said that he is also against the six-month restriction, adding the government should be the “gatekeeper” to examine workers’ reasons of changing jobs and approve the applications.

Yet, Chan Chak Mo argued that allowing imported workers to change jobs at any time they want will cause “chaos” to Macau’s business operations and increase employers’ costs in human resources.

Fong Chi Keong agreed. “If there is no restriction, we don’t actually need this law. Imported workers should be under certain control and accept the provisions,” he said.

Mr Chan and Kwan Tsui Hang both deemed that if those “inhumane situations” mentioned by Mr Alves really exist, workers should bring the employers to justice and complain to the Labour Affairs Bureau.

Ms Kwan afterwards told the other lawmakers imported labour is not “goods” for employers, “Article 4 says workers cannot terminate the contracts, while Article 14 says skilled workers can change jobs as long as the first employer approves”.

Only after two hours of discussion, director of the Labour Affairs Bureau (DSAL) Shuen Ka Hung gave the lawmakers an explanation which is a completely different interpretation of what is written in Article 4.

“The six-month restriction only applies when non-local workers fire their employers without having justified reasons in the middle of the employment contracts,” Mr Shuen said.

“If inhumane situations happen, workers can report to DSAL which will then notify the Human Resources Office. In this case workers can quit freely and change jobs on reasonable grounds,” he added.

However, president of the Legislative Assembly Susanna Chou and some lawmakers pointed out that Mr Shuen’s explanation was inconsistent to the provisions written. Hence the legal team was called in to rewrite the article immediately during a 15-minute break.

Mr Shuen said to define whether or not the reasons are justified, Article 71 of the Labour Law can be used.

In the meantime when a ruling is not yet handed down, the DSAL director said the workers can go to work for another company, but if eventually it is proved that the reasons given by the workers are unsubstantial or unjustified, they will still need to leave Macau for six months immediately.

His speech then drew another controversy in the plenary meeting.

Susana Chou said since the restriction is meant to punish imported labour for changing jobs, it will be “meaningless” if workers are being punished only after letting them to work elsewhere.

Chan Chak Mo also said that it will be “unfair” to employers and is “infeasible” in operation.

At the end of the plenary meeting, David Chow Kam Fai and Jose Coutinho suggested delaying the final reading of the bill until the next term of the legislature commences on October 15.

Yet, many other lawmakers opposed and deemed that the legislation should be completed within the current term.

The Macau Migrants Rights Network is planning to hand in 2,000 signatures to the Assembly today to petition against the six-month restriction, the levy on employers and prohibition of transfer to other job categories in the bill.

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