From the ground up

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Published:
21 Jul 2017
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10 min read
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2097 words
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Nepalis in Hong Kong have made huge inroads in Hong Kong’s construction sector

Hong Kong International Airport, located on the island of Chek Lap Kok, which largely comprises land reclaimed for the construction of the airport itself, started operating in 1998. It is well known as both the world’s busiest cargo gateway, and one of the world’s busiest passenger airports. It is also home to one of the world’s largest passenger terminal buildings. The airport project generated a huge demand for labour. Around this time, a lot of Nepalis had decided to reside in Hong Kong, owing to a new law that made anyone born in Hong Kong before 1983 eligible for permanent residency. Quite a few of these Nepalis ended up doing construction work on Hong Kong International Airport. Whilst many Hong Kong locals did not wish to work in such a demanding and risky environment, Nepalis had no qualms taking up construction work. The early 1990s is thus believed to be the period when the largest number of Nepalis first stepped into this industry, many of them as entry-level construction workers.

Today, the industry employs over 7,000 Nepalis out of the 25,000 Nepalis residing in Hong Kong. Nepali construction workers have contributed to countless large projects, including mega bridges, tunnels, sub-sea tunnels and high-rise buildings. Many Nepalis today thrive in key positions such as Team Leader, Supervisor, Project Manager of construction projects, and quite a few Nepalis even run their own sub-contractor companies. 

There was a time when Hong Kong locals would not have chanced upon Nepalis—wearing hard hats, wielding pickaxes and drill hammers—working on a stretch of highway or a span of a bridge or the floors of a rapidly rising high rise. The Nepali diaspora then was limited to British Gurkhas, their families and the occasional traders from Manang. Initially, the first-generation Gurkhas had to work jobs that were seen as requiring little skill or education. These included positions such as security guard, driver and bodyguard. Over time, the Nepalis in Hong Kong started exploring various sectors, and also excelling in them. And among them, the construction industry, has now overwhelmingly become the industry of choice. 

Working in the industry

A work site in Ap Lei Chau, Hong Kong, is teeming with Nepali workers in the pale light of early morning. The day starts when the surveyors make very precise location marks with paint around a wall. A plant operator breaks a sweat in the heat as he starts a jumbo drill. A distinct buzzing fills the air of the construction site. The drill proceeds to cut patterns of holes of varying depths into a massive rock face. Once workers fill the drilled holes with explosives such as dynamite, all the workers evacuate the site, leaving behind only an uncanny silence. As a fully safety-geared engineer detonates the explosives by just a remote-control command, a muted blast sounds from within the rock formation. The rock cracks and breaks apart, but this marks just the beginning of this construction phase. Once large trucks remove the layers of debris, the process comes full circle for the workers—they’ll then have to move on to splashing marking-paint on new locations.

Whilst most local Chinese workers do not prefer working in this industry, as it involves high risk, Nepalis are willing to take this risk. “Numerous firms in Hong Kong are eager to employ people from the Nepali community,” says Madhu Bom Malla, human resource director of Paramount Engineering, a leading sub-contractor company among companies run by ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. “The Nepalis have created their own identity, that of being brave, loyal and dedicated, and have proven to be valuable assets in the industry.”

On average, workers in the industry earn around HKD 25,000 a month (around Rs 330,630). Highly skilled workers in fields such as concreting and tunnel-building tend to receive double the amount (HKD 50,000 to HKD 60,000 per month). Shankar Gurung, a construction worker specialising in concreting, suggests that payscale is a reflection of the economic climate of the city. “As Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities to live in, the salary too is quite good here. Construction workers need not be highly qualified to land a well-paying job, which is why many Nepalis flock to this sector.”  

Working in the construction industry, however, is not easy. Landing a job involves fulfilling numerous prerequisites, the most important of which is training. Training is usually provided by independent authorities, such as the Construction Council. Those wanting to work in tunnels, for instance, must obtain a Tunnel Card by completing a one-day training course. All trade workers (specialists) must also undergo training. While general workers are normally exempt from the training requirement, they do need to attend briefing sessions on safety and other hazard-related issues. Furthermore, workers are often asked to take part in additional safety and quality training sessions provided by their employers.

Some of these employers are Nepalis themselves. “There are around five major sub-contractor companies, like Paramount Engineering, Pacific Crown, Gurkhas Groups, and other 30-40 minor companies,” says Prakash Pun, chairperson at The Gurkhas Groups Holdings Limited and the president of Hong Kong Nepal Business Association. “But very few of them execute business activities on a large scale. Most instead focus on supplying manpower to different projects in small numbers.” It goes without saying that a sub-contractor company must be managed by those with occupational knowledge of the industry. It is for this reason that companies are increasingly choosing to employ staff—often Nepalis—with professional qualifications and specialised knowledge. Pun also says that there are no Nepali businessmen operating as main contractors at the moment. “We are still learning, and we first have to gain a lot of experience and gather more resources,” he says.

Establishing a company

The sheer ease of starting a construction business in Hong Kong has played a large role in attracting Nepalis to the industry. “The Hong Kong Government has made it very simple for people to start a business,” says Malla. Setting up a business begins with the registration of the company, after which expenses such as office rent, utilities and staff expenses must be considered. Further overhead costs such as administration costs should also be factored into the equation. Depending on the size of company, say, for a company employing 350 ground workers and 10-15 office staff, the total expense amounts to approximately Rs 40 lakhs to 50 lakhs monthly. Nepali company owners often support their businesses with mortgages, loans and investments.

And then it’s time to land a contract. Sub-contractors, who often operate as sole-proprietorships, partnerships or as a private limited, frequently visit the official websites of various departments, such as the Highways Department, Civil Engineering and Development Department, Hong Kong International Airport Authority, Hong Kong Housing Authority, Architectural Services Department, Mass Transit Railways (MTR) and so on. The Hong Kong Government publishes its upcoming strategic plans for different sectors through its various official websites. Sub-contractors can thus gather detailed information from these websites about construction projects. After acquiring all the required information, the sub-contractors follow up—via phone calls, emails and so on—with the main contractors who have been awarded the various major projects. The sub-contractors also visit the main contractors’ site offices and head offices with their company profile to strike a deal.

Safety standards in Hong Kong

According to Dilip Gurung, a senior safety manager who has been working in this industry for over 20 years, because Hong Kong has a fast-moving economy—where time really does mean money—time is always of the essence for contractors. “For example, a client will only allow 14 months to complete a 50-storey building. If the contractor fails to meet that target, the company will be penalised. I carry out safety audits for my company, Maeda Corporation, around the Asia Pacific, and none of the other countries have such stringent restrictions as Hong Kong’s. But sometimes, contractors compromise safety standards to meet their deadline, which can lead to serious accidents,” he says. 

Dilip Gurung also says that there have been a few accidents, including several fatal accidents, in which ethnic minorities were involved. A major cause for such occurrences is believed to be the language barrier. “Most of the safety training sessions are conducted in Cantonese, so most ethnic minorities do not clearly understand what is being talked about, and they often miss important points,” says Dilip Gurung. Another factor is the risk-taking behaviour employees indulge in if and when there is no supervisor or senior management on the construction site.

Dilip Gurung suggests that to avoid such accidents, more ethnic minorities should take part in safety courses. He also says that they should be employed in companies where the majority of the workers are ethnic minorities from their own background, so that safety training sessions can be provided in the relevant native language. “Nepali gangers, foremen and supervisors could also learn Cantonese, to better communicate with other local foremen,” says Dilip Gurung. He also believes that the companies themselves need to have safety-promotional posters written in the language of the workers. 

The future

“Overall, we love doing business in Hong Kong,” says Malla. Hong Kong is one of the most well-structured systems in terms of safety management in the Asia Pacific, and at the same time, the Hong Kong Government also supports its businessmen, as well as workers. Malla says he might even think about taking on construction work in Nepal. “Because we have gained so much experience over here, we would surely be interested in extending our business to Nepal. But that depends on the political stability and peace in Nepal, and on whether the government policies and the environment are conducive for doing business.” The Nepalis in Hong Kong are skilled, they are talented, and they are willing to contribute to Nepal. “Now the question,” says Malla, “is about whether the Nepali government will take the initiative to make use of Hong Kong Nepalis’ skills as assets to develop Nepal.” 

Early colonial-era Hong Kong 

The presence of the first generation of Nepalis in Hong Kong was tied to city’s British colonial history. The Nepali Gurkhas brigade has served the British Army from 1816, and were particularly active in Hong Kong from the 1940s. They continued in this employment arrangement until 1997; their primary duties were to deter illegal immigrants from crossing the border over into Hong Kong, and protect local residents. Most Gurkhas resided in the Whitfield Barracks and Shek Kong Barracks. The children of Gurkhas soldiers born in Hong Kong before 1983, who had been granted permanent residence, started settling in Hong Kong in the 1990s. Before the 90s, few Nepalis exercised that right, but during that decade, the largest period of emigration in Nepal’s history, many decided to make Hong Kong home.