Skilled bamboo scaffolding craftsmen can earn attractive wages in Hong Kong’s construction industry
After decades of technological advance in building and construction methods, bamboo scaffolding remains the top choice for construction companies putting up high-rise structures in Hong Kong. Despite constant demand for the craft and industry initiatives to train up more young people, scaffolding firm owners say they face increasing difficulty in filling posts.
The industry’s acute manpower shortage began in 2010, when the government launched its “Ten Major Infrastructure Projects”, says Yip Hong-ying, director of Lok Sum Scaffolding. These include the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high speed rail link and the MTR’s extension of the Island Line.
“With so many large-scale infrastructure projects going on, other trades, such as bar-bending, have become a more attractive choice for talent in construction,” he says.
Yip says scaffolding firms can only offer HK$500 a day for newcomers to the trade, while novice bar-benders receive HK$800 a day. “It was not an attractive job among young people to begin with,” he says. “Now, even those who have decided to join the construction industry will choose to work on bar-bending because there is more money. It is extra tough for us to get young people.”
To help provide more talent for the bamboo scaffolding trade, the Construction Industry Council offers one-year training courses for school leavers and a three-month short course for adults. Individuals who finish the course and pass the specialised Intermediate Trade Test can earn at least HK$700 a day.
After gaining three years’ experience, scaffolders can then take the Trade Test Certificate. On passing this test, they attain craftsman status, and can earn upwards of HK$1,500 a day.
Last year, there were 1,415 bamboo scaffolders at craftsman level, up from 1,299 in 2009, when the Code of Practice for Bamboo Scaffolding Safety was amended to tighten up training and safety requirements.
The nine per cent increase suggests that the training drive is beginning to have an impact, but industry insiders are skeptical, arguing that the figures are rarely updated to reflect the number of retiring craftsmen.
Yip, who left school after Form Three to join the trade, says the secondary education reforms, which were introduced in 2009, have posed an obstacle to young people entering the construction industry.
“Now kids have to stay in school until Form Six under the new 12-year free education scheme,” he says. “The government also no longer permits people under the age of 18 to work on a construction site. When I joined, about 15 years ago, people under the age of 16 were allowed to work on a construction site with a special permit.”
Chu Chi-wai, owner of Kong Ngai Scaffolding, says young people are reluctant to join the industry because it is tough. “They would rather do waitressing work in an air-conditioned room and not sweat under the sun the entire day on a bamboo scaffold,” he says.
Today, newcomers to the ancient trade can only help out on the ground, because it is illegal for them to get up on to the bamboo scaffolding, Chu says. “There is not much they can do, so they are only paid around HK$500 a day, a salary that young people can easily earn from other jobs in an indoor working environment,” he says. “Now most of the workers on my team are men in their 30s and 40s.” But while the starting salary for bamboo scaffolders is lower than some other construction trades, long-term prospects are quite rewarding – both in terms of monetary rewards and job satisfaction, according to Yip.
“For qualified craftsman, we offer HK$1,800 a day along with an allowance for meals,” he says. “That is easily more than HK$2,000 a day for a craftsman [scaffolder], which is one of the more generous offers in the construction industry.”
“I have built bamboo scaffolding on a bridge, on a highway, in a tunnel, in the middle of Nathan Road, and at the bottom of a swimming pool. Every project is different and it is so much fun. You get to see a lot of places and visit places not everyone is allowed to go to,” he says.
Yip was once commissioned to build a bamboo structure as a piece of art that was showcased on the University of Hong Kong campus. “That was one of my most challenging projects ever and I had the most fun,” he says. “Bamboo scaffolding can be artistic.” Bamboo scaffolding also has a low turnover rate compared to other trades, says Yip.
“Many young people leave their jobs in bar-bending early because they cannot stand the heat,” he says. “Our job is less demanding because we move from place to place to work. The guys can take a break while travelling and do not have to work all day on a site.”
Yip recommends that young people who are considering joining the trade should only apply if they have a genuine interest in bamboo scaffolding. “Many recruitment advertisements for construction jobs highlight that it is an industry that offers a generous salary,” he says.
“Don’t get carried away by that. Whatever you do, you need to be interested, if you are to stay for the long-haul.”
Climbing the bamboo ladder
Chan Yuk-ting, a bamboo scaffolder with Lok Sum Scaffolding, joined the trade three years ago as an apprentice, and is planning to take the Trade Test Certificate later this year
“A few of my school mates were working in the !trade and they needed more people, so I helped them out,” he says. “The more I learn about the craft, the more I love it.”
Chan entered the trade directly from school and, initially, his family were against the move. He says they thought the job was dangerous, but “now they understand that it is not dangerous at all, if you follow the safety procedures, and it is a good career”.
Chan loves his job because it takes him to some special places. “I built bamboo scaffolding on the 60th floor of a skyscraper and I was working in the clouds — it was really amazing,” he says. “Many people think it is very physically demanding, but if you are doing it right, you can move easily and safely on the scaffolding.”
Chan says he hopes to become a qualified craftsman by the end of the year. He plans to continue his specialised career and develop his skills further, aiming to supervise and train junior craftsmen as he gets older.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Property & Construction – Construct your future.