‘You can’t sacrifice rights to make way for development’: Ella Lei Cheng I

Monday, May 16, 2011
Issue 1307, Page 4-5
Word count: 1263
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

Macau’s economy is experiencing unprecedented growth and the demand for manpower has never been so strong. Local workers are undeniably presented with more opportunities and choice, but it doesn’t necessarily correlate that their best interests are protected.

“Labourers are still disadvantaged after all and people can’t sacrifice their rights and interests to make way for economic development,” said Ella Lei Cheng I, vice-chairwoman of the Macau Federation of Trade Unions (FAOM) and chief of the federation’s department of rights and interests.

Speaking to the Macau Daily Times, Lei said that although Macau’s employment environment has improved, and the first quarter’s unemployment rate dropped again to a record low of 2.7 percent, local workers are still facing a variety of issues that are inconsistent with basic labour rights and interests today.

People of middle age who were eliminated by the industrial transformation that took place when Macau went from a manufactured based to gaming based economy, along with minimal educational qualifications, have been hardest hit, Lei said.

In addition, there is an imbalance between workload and salary that also affect local workers dramatically.

Macau resident’s median income has remained at around MOP 10,000 for 10 consecutive quarters, but Lei said apart from the higher increase in wages of casino employees, those in other industries such as hotel and catering had increased ‘disproportionately’.

“Salary is an operating cost but how much does it account for the total? In Macau rents usually contribute the largest pressure to business, consequently suppressing the room for a pay raise,” she pointed out.

In the meantime, Lei, who is also a representative of employees in the government’s Standing Committee for the Coordination of Social Affairs, told the MDTimes that some local workers are “earning very little, below MOP 3,000 a month”.

While the majority of these people hail from the fading manufacturing industry that rely on hourly rates, and had their hours reduced, she said the situation may be even worse for building security and cleaning workers because of the “length of hours they worked”.

According to official statistics, in the fourth quarter of 2010 there were about 15,000 people who worked 45 hours or more per week but earned less than MOP 3,500 a month, and about 28,000 people who were paid less than MOP 4,500, she added.

“It’s unreasonable to make such a low income for a long time; especially when working hours are long. That’s why a minimum wage is necessary in order to reflect labour value and at least support the basic living needs of the people,” Lei stressed.

“Macau has a large number of non-residents engaging in these jobs [building security and cleaning]. Due to the increased supply and easy application [to import workers], employers are not willing to raise the salaries of local employees, who in fact have weak bargaining power,” she pointed out.

Locals not a priority

This is perhaps why the FAOM believes that behind all those glamorous numbers, local labourers are indeed sharing ‘very limited’ fruits of the territory’s booming economic growth.

The situation, Lei said, can be well illustrated in the hotel and catering industries, in spite of their business benefitting most greatly from gaming expansion.

Between 2007 and 2008, Macau had about 15,000 to 16,000 hotel rooms, and the number jumped to nearly 20,000 in the third quarter of 2010.

Hotel staff members were cut during the worst stage of the global economic downtown between late 2008 and 2009, but Lei said that these positions have not yet been replaced to reflect the current requirements and remain at the pre-crisis level.

“The room occupancy rate also reached an average of over 75 percent, which implies that hotel employee workloads have increased but their median income was just between MOP 6,500 to MOP 7,000,” she added.

Human resources have been in great demand in the hotel sector. Lei said while the government approved ‘a large number of imported workers’ in response, remuneration packages being offered by operators are not enough to lure local people to the industry.

Local hotels had hired some 11,000 migrant workers at peak, she added, but the number remained around 10,000 even when the global financial crisis hit.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t believe that an atmosphere exists in Macau where local people are in opposition of non-resident labourers.

“Locals are uncomfortable with the imported labour policy. If there was no control over the import of labourers, they must suppress local people’s bargaining power as well as opportunities to get a pay raise and job promotion,” she told the MDTimes.

The FAOM vice-chairwoman believes that Macau does have talent, but they are not being taken seriously by employers who would prefer imported employees to hold the mid and senior level posts.

Macau people on the other hand, need to constantly enrich their knowledge and skills in face of the increasingly tense competition in the job market, according to Lei.

Vocational training organised by FAOM has received encouraging feedback. Apart from language and other educational courses, she said public relations skills, interpersonal relationships and service skills training are also very popular.

“Workers can’t be satisfied with the current status,” she stressed.

No reasonable compensation

The FAOM failed to secure long service payments for employees in the most recent review of the Labour Relations Law in 2009. Lei said the government promised that a mandatory provident fund would be introduced instead, but the workers union is still determined to achieve this outcome but expect it to be a ‘long battle’.

The Standing Committee for the Coordination of Social Affairs has already begun preliminary talks in the newest round of the law revision. Lei said the employee representatives intend on proposing to cancel the dismissal compensation ceiling or at least to raise the level in order to keep pace with the reality.

Under the current Labour Relations Law, an employer who dismisses an employee without justification is obliged to pay compensation. The maximum amount is calculated based on up to 12 months salary and a salary amount up to MOP 14,000 at most, no matter how long the person had worked in the company and how much he/she was earning each month.

“Workers’ wages have risen in general especially for casino employees whose income is mostly over MOP 14,000 nowadays,” Lei said.

“The law says the cap can rise depending on the socio-economic situation. But no changes were made in the last revision of the law,” she added.

In addition, she pointed out that as Macau has no compensation for statutory holidays unlike Hong Kong, sometimes workers would have their weekly days off scheduled by their employers on the same day as the statutory holiday, regardless if it was intentional or not.

“It’s also very hard for workers to prove that the company is doing this deliberately,” she said.

Lei disclosed that this time the focal point of the review is to “clear doubts” in the provisions to make law enforcement more effective.

Director of the Labour Affairs Bureau, Shuen Ka Kung, told the MDTimes in last Monday’s interview that a union and strike law are not yet necessary in the territory.

Yet, the FAOM vice-chairwoman argued that “[collective bargaining] can actually benefit the negotiations between companies and workers and avoid a lot of unnecessary disputes”.

“The laws aren’t only about protests or sit-ins and workers unions don’t necessarily stir up conflicts,” she reiterated.

Although the FAOM is called a union, she said it is “in fact just a social organisation [in legal terms]” and thus there are “doubts over its legitimacy to fight for workers’ rights and interests” in Macau.

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