SCMP Saturday, May 5, 2001

May Day rallying cry makes labour a poll issue

A noisy but orderly May Day demonstration by about 200 mostly unemployed workers and trade-union activists provided a stark reminder that labour issues will play a major role in Macau's forthcoming legislative election.
The rally was a mayday call for better working conditions, including demands for a "fair" minimum wage, strict implementation of an eight-hour working day and a reduction in the number of workers imported from the mainland, the Philippines and elsewhere across Southeast Asia.
The protest was organised by the independent Macau Workers Union, set up last December and claiming a membership of 110. The union takes pride in being independent of Macau's traditional General Labour Unions Association, which it accuses of social inertia and political inaction.
However, the association, which claims to have more than 10,000 members, has lately shown signs of revived activism, such as when it announced plans last month to sue the Government's Labour and Employment Bureau for dereliction of duty in defending the interests of the unemployed.
About 14,000 among Macau's workforce of 216,000 are unemployed, according to official statistics. Qualified unemployed people can receive a daily subsidy of 90 patacas (about HK$87) for up to three months per year.
Macau's labour legislation continues to be among the world's most rudimentary. There is still no labour tribunal, and a 1998 skeleton law on employment policy and labour rights permits a working day of up to 10.5 hours and payment in kind of up to 50 per cent of workers' wages.
Workers are entitled to just six days' paid annual leave (though public servants get 22 days), according to the law.
Although the International Labour Organisation's 1930 convention on mechanisms to determine minimum wages in certain trades is valid in Macau, it has never been enforced. Government officials insist Macau's current economic conditions are unsuitable for a statutory minimum wage.
Macau's average monthly wage amounted to just 4,682 patacas late last year, according to the Macau SAR Government's Statistics and Census Bureau. Social workers maintain that most blue-collar workers earn only about 3,500 patacas a month.
Economists caution that due to specific local circumstances, Macau's unemployment situation and salary conditions are more complex than statistics would indicate. Thousands of local residents who claim to be unemployed make a decent living through cross-border trade or by freelancing on the fringes of the gaming industry as chip traders.
And many of these unemployed "workers" are, in fact, formerly self-employed subcontractors, such as decorators and repairmen, or the owners of small workshops that went bust.
Although Macau's gross domestic product returned to the black last year for the first time since 1996, labour-market conditions are expected to improve substantially only in the medium term.
Therefore, the issues of labour legislation, unemployment and labour conditions will dominate Macau's first post-handover legislative polls in September.
Little wonder, then, that even some big businessmen standing in the election have started to present themselves as "labour-friendly" candidates.
Harald Bruning ( ) is the Post's Macau correspondent.