Wednesday, October 30, 2013, 08:14
Building inspectors to strike over excessive workload
By Kahon Chan in Hong Kong

Buildings Department inspectors will strike on Thursday to protest against a manpower shortage that threatens to delay the supply of new homes and has already hampered the city’s mandatory building inspection scheme.

Strike organizer, the Association of Government Technical and Survey Officers (AGTSO), said on Tuesday that the department had been heavily understaffed since 2011, and that more than 50,000 removal or repair orders are pending follow-up action as a result.

The department’s frontline workforce suffered the loss of 258 contract workers after 2010, following the end of an ad-hoc inspection scheme. Only 49 technical and survey officers have been added since. 

Though the workforce has shrunk, the workload has grown due to new policies, such as reinforced law-enforcement against subdivided flats. The union said 500 new hires would be needed to restore workload levels to those before 2010 levels.

A lack of workers has led to longer waits and lesser quality. The union confirmed a developers’ complaint that construction plans have been deterred by regulatory process at the Building Department.

While there are 150 surveyors and engineers at the new buildings division, there is only 50 frontline officers, said Liu Fuk-hing, vice-chairman of the AGTSO survey officer group. Liu said site inspections are now so few and so brief that new building construction quality is “largely in question”.

An estimated 50,000 removal and repair orders, Liu said, are also pending department attention. An order to remove a loose signboard that led to a six-hour closure of Nathan Road on Tuesday had been issued a year ago, he said. “One year (delay) was not long. There are cases that are delayed for 10 years.”

The staffing shortage has become so bad that staff find themselves at a “crossroads” of efficiency and work ethics.

Under the new mandatory building inspection scheme launched in June 2012, officers review inspection reports prepared by consultancy firms, in which owners of selected buildings are obligated to hire contractors to fix the “prescribed repairs” listed out by the consultants.

It is a stated policy that reports are only randomly audited by the watchdog, but Fung Kwan-kin, head of the AGTSO’s technical officer group, said the reports are often so badly written that they don’t dare put a stamp on a report without an elaborate review.

The management has then pushed for faster output. “They said once the task is outsourced, responsibility falls on the consultancy firms,” Fung said. “But I am educated that one cannot outsource a responsibility. All our frontline staff know well about this principle.”

The mandatory window inspection scheme, also launched last June, has run for six quarters and new projects from the seventh and eighth quarters are landing on the officers’ desks, but the union revealed they are still working on projects from the first quarter.

The nominal strike will last during lunch hour at the department’s Mong Kok office, Fung explained, as workers don’t want to jeopardize public welfare by extending their action.

A Buildings Department spokesperson said a full manpower review is underway, but that it finds the current ratio between professionals and frontline officers is appropriate.