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Feathered Nest

Macau’s resident workers can do little wrong in the eyes of the government

Monday, 01 November 2010 16:17
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During most of the four decades of Dr Stanley Ho’s casino monopoly, Macau was known for having a pliant if somewhat grumpy workforce. Now it seems to have a grumpy self-satisfied one.

Street demonstrations against imported labour first seen in Macau four years ago may have set off a chain reaction over civil and labour rights that could influence the territory’s casino market for years to come. That could have long-term implications for the project costs and operational overheads faced by Macau’s casino operators and their investors.

Some of this could simply be Macau growing up as a community. The more educated and the more financially secure a society becomes, the more likely its members are to argue the toss over their labour and civil rights. It could also, however, be a result of ‘favourite child’ syndrome. Most of the recent media coverage on labour in Macau has focused on the construction worker issue. But a new government ordinance, the Imported Labour Law that came into effect on 26th April, could have a much more long-term influence on the rest of the labour market. It appears to institutionalise further the legal protections for resident employees, who now know they virtually have to set a bomb off in the workplace to get the sack.

Out with the old

Under the new law, non-resident workers can be and are being dropped at short notice, getting only ten days notice to quit Macau and being barred from returning within six months. Under the previous regulatory system, a sacked or released migrant worker had the possibility of staying on in Macau if he or she could find a new job. The old system also had the virtue of clarity and simplicity. Everyone knew that (with the recent exception of construction), two locals had to be hired for every imported staffer.

The new ordinance instead gives officials discretion to allocate migrant workers on an industry-by-industry basis, and then further discretion to vary the mix on a company-by-company basis. While in theory this might seem fairer in addressing the particular needs of a particular business, it is likely to be fantastically cumbersome and bureaucratic, not to mention totally lacking in transparency. It means, in effect, that the migrant labour policy is whatever the government says it is on any given day of the week. That opens up endless potential for score settling with any employers rocking the boat, or favouritism toward any employers deemed as ‘important’ or well connected.

The net effect is likely to be that it becomes so tiresome and drawn out to hire outsiders that companies will suck up even those barely able to read and write sooner than jump through the necessary hoops. According to industry sources, Macau’s casino dealers (every one of them a Macau resident) already earn more on average per month than dealers in Singapore (US$1,625 versus US$1,400). In the third quarter of this year, the average daily wage of construction workers in Macau rose 7.3% quarter-on-quarter, according to Macau’s Statistics and Census Service, though by Western standards average daily construction pay is still extremely modest at MOP544 (US$68).

All things to all men

Without getting deep into the debate about the merits of democratic government versus a system based on functional constituencies, one side benefit of one person one vote is that governments only have to pay serious attention to organised labour movements in the run up to elections. Under a functional system like the one predominant in Macau, the government is always looking over its shoulder wondering if it’s keeping everyone happy.

In May, the Macau government effectively bowed to popular pressure on labour importation and instituted a one-for-one labour policy (one local for every migrant employed) on Macau’s current crop of casino construction works. There were reports in October suggesting the government may have softened its line on the labour policy. That could benefit not only the casino projects of Galaxy Macau and Sands China’s Cotai 5 & 6 extension, but also the scheme for a new light-rail system and new private housing developments. The wider point, however, is that now that ‘people power’ has worked once, the more militant among Macau’s unemployed and its labour unions may be encouraged to try more of the same.

Macau’s annual gaming revenues for 2010 are likely to show a 60% rise year on year. Unemployment among Macau residents was under 3% in the third quarter. With a big new property (Galaxy Macau) opening in the first half of next year on Cotai requiring up to 8,000 people and the government imposing strict quotas on imported labour in other sectors, locals certainly seem to be feeling more secure about their jobs. When a lawmaker suggested in July that the Macau government might consider setting up a vocational training council to equip local workers with the right skills for current economic needs, the response of Shuen Ka Hung, the Director of Macau’s Labour Affairs Bureau, seemed to reflect the cosy mood of the local workforce. He said the likely level of take up would be so low that the expense of setting up such a system could not be justified.

That sense of security is also feeding through in a certain amount of bolshiness among some lawmakers and some employees in their dealings with the government. Western employers are used to that kind of cycle in citizens’ attitudes, mirroring what’s going on in the wider economy. In Macau, it’s a relative novelty.

Uppity

There were two examples recently. In the first case, some lawmakers complained in a committee annual report they haven’t been given enough information about the contracts between the gaming operators and the government. That may seem like small beer to outsiders. There have always been a few outspoken members of the Legislative Assembly. But for a whole committee to put their names to a complaint addressed to the local political leadership is newsworthy in a community where the Assembly has been largely focused on finding a consensus with the Chief Executive’s office.

Having said that, the lawmakers chose relatively safe ground on which to fight. Their complaint referred to what steps the government was taking to ensure diversification of the local tourism market away from hard gambling—a topic close to the heart of the central government in Beijing.

“The committee is not familiar with the details of the contracts between the Government and the operators and therefore cannot assess what was the percentage of the total investment amounts used in leisure facilities,” the lawmakers wrote in the report according to a story published first in the Portuguese-language newspaper Ponto Final and then reprinted in the English-language Macau Daily Times.

A few days later, Macau’s Civil Servants’ Association claimed the Macau government failed to consult it and other interested parties properly over the planned implementation of a United Nations covenant on economic and other rights.

Complaint

The Association said the Macau government sent its own report on the UN document to Beijing without proper consultation and even without some basic relevant information on Macau’s labour policies.

The Association also announced a list of areas where it claimed Macau falls short of the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It said:

• Macau does not have laws on the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, to strike, or to engage in collective bargaining;

• under Macau’s new Labour Relations Law, employers are allowed to dismiss workers without giving reasons provided they pay compensation;

• local labour law allows employers to reduce the basic pay of employees.

To be fair, though, it was Macau’s post handover government, not the former Portuguese administration, that raised the legal employment age from 14 to 16 under a new Labour Relations Law in 2008. If the Portuguese couldn’t be motivated to outlaw child labour in Macau in the late 20th century, then Westerners can hardly complain now if their Filipino bar staff and domestic helpers have to leave town.

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