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Friday, July 31, 2015, 10:13

Replacing an aging workforce — the way ahead

By Emma Dai in Hong Kong
Replacing an aging workforce — the way ahead

As Hong Kong’s population ages, the labor shortage problem is worsening. But, the city is not short of people willing to join the labor force — they’ve to be encouraged to do so.

The key is to provide a better social buffer and change society’s mindset, particularly within the business community.

The suggestions came from government officials, social welfare organizations, labor-market experts and employers at a roundtable summit co-organized by China Daily.

“In order to release unused manpower, we should focus on retired, unemployed women, disabled, ethnic minorities and new immigrants who have come to Hong Kong for family reunions,” Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung told the Hong Kong Labor Market Roundtable Conference.

The summit was organized by Recruit, and co-organized by China Daily Hong Kong Edition and the Hong Kong Management Association (HKMA) on July 24.

“To get these people into the workforce, social welfare institutions and social enterprises have a very important role to play. We rely on them to find these people and encourage them to come out to work,” Cheung said.

“At the same time, it’s also crucial for the government to be supportive and provide all the right conditions, as well as corporative policies for these social welfare platforms to run smoothly,” he added.

HKMA Executive Director Victor Lee, host of the roundtable, said: “In recent years, Hong Kong’s labor population has been growing. However, we’re about to see the turning point. To tackle the labor shortage problem, Hong Kong needs to motivate every potential labor source available.”

He predicted that the SAR’s working population will peak by 2018 at 3.71 million. But, as the population ages rapidly, the workforce will decline by 8,000 to 10,000 annually a year in the following 17 years until 2035.

In 2013, Hong Kong had 3.58 million workers, or 59 percent of its entire population. But, there were still 1.56 million people aged between 15 and 64 who were unemployed.

According to Cheung, there are currently 530,000 housewives who are between 30 and 59 years old and can work. A recent government survey shows that about 8 percent, or 40,000 housewives, said they were willing to return to the workplace if their households and children can be taken care of.

Cheung-Ang Siew-mei, executive director of Christian Action, told the conference: “Many new immigrant mothers, who are married to local residents, have the incentive to work because many of them are not entitled to social welfare for the time being. However, child-care services are critical to them. These mothers find it hard to work as they can’t leave their kids alone at home.”

She said if child-care services are provided each day until 7 pm throughout the week, mothers would be able to work from 8 am to 6 pm, while those who have no access to such services can only work between 9am and 3 pm.

“It’s also important to extend such services to children above 9 years of age as it’s illegal to have minors left at home alone. What if the mother has one young child and one elder? These mothers can’t even take training courses because many of these courses are only available full-time.”

Yvonne Yeung Kin-ha, chief executive of the Hong Kong Young Women’s Christian Association, urged the authorities to expand investing in formal school-based child-care services. “Hong Kong parents today, no matter rich or poor, would expect far more than babysitting. They want all pre-school education, inter-personal skills and physical training.”

Subsidies for the poor

According to Yeung, the coverage rate of formal child care in Hong Kong is only about 13 percent which is “quite low”, compared with about 25 percent in Japan and Singapore, and 33 percent in Australia.

“According to our study, housework is another issue that ties up Hong Kong women at home,” Yeung said, pointing out that for those whose income is near the minimum wage, it’s not worth working if they have to pay a household assistant HK$60 an hour. “Subsides for poor families would solve this problem.”

Hong Kong’s statutory minimum wage was raised from HK$30 to HK$32.5 per hour in May this year.

To engage more new immigrants and women, as well as others who can work, to join the workforce, Lawrance Wong, president of Many Wells Property Agent Ltd, urged employers to be more open-minded.

“New immigrants work very hard. They have the spirit local workers had in the 80s and 90s. In order to hire more immigrants, we have been flexible with working hours,” Wong said. “In recent years, we have introduced jobs with six-hour shifts. Employees can choose any shift that suits them from 9:30 am to 9 pm.”

“It’s important for the business community to change its mindset, not just towards flexible working hours, but to the elderly and the disabled,” Wong said. “We have elderly workers who are 65 years old and are just as productive as their younger colleagues. We also employ the disabled, usually in supporting jobs, but they are also fine doing sales work.”

According to Victor Lee, only 39 percent of those aged 60 to 64 remains in Hong Kong’s workforce, which is “low” compared with 61 percent in Japan, 58 percent in South Korea and 60 percent in Singapore.

“A problem facing many retired people when they want to enter the workforce again is training. They may want to try a new business, but can’t find relevant occupational courses for them,” said Perina Li Siu-fan, chief manager of The Salvation Army in Hong Kong and Macao.

“In particular, there are many women who have spent many years taking care of elderly relatives in the family. When the elderly pass away, they are usually more than 50 years old and had already left the labor market for years. However, these middle-aged people are capable of working in nursing homes. It would be great if retaining organizations could provide such courses to help them find jobs,” Perina Li said. 

Chua Hoi-wai, chief executive of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, noted that the employment rate of the disabled in Hong Kong is low — just over 30 percent, or half of that of the entire population.

According to Chua, there are currently 180,000 disabled people aged 18 to 64 in Hong Kong, but only 70,000 of them are employed. Many of them are capable of working, particularly the 44,000 who are physically disabled and an equal number of former mental patients.

“It could be hard in the beginning to hire disabled people because they may need more time to manage the job,” Chua said. “But it’s hard to find employees these days anyway. And disabled workers, once they have adapted themselves to the environment, are usually very loyal. They appreciate having a job and a friendly working environment.”

“But, one hurdle is that some employers don’t know where to find these people. Besides, they are worried about the condition of former mental patients,” he added. 

Jobs for the disabled

“We started hiring disabled workers more than 10 years ago. It’s not easy,” said Sunny Lo, chief executive officer of Café de Coral Holdings Ltd.

“There are many issues to be resolved. Other workers need to accept them as members of the team, and managers have to take care of them. Customers, on the other hand, have to tolerate them as these workers might be slower in learning. The challenge is that those with mild mental retardation tend to behave slightly different. We appreciate that many social workers have been helping us and we also have organizations taking care of them,” Lo said

“A 30-percent employment rate for the disabled is quite encouraging,” Lo added. “The reward for getting the disabled to work is significant. It’s not just about their self-esteem, their parents would also be proud and families would be a lot happier.”

“It’s time to provide incentives for the business community to bring back jobs for the disabled — jobs that were outsourced many years ago,” urged William Leung, chairman of the Employees Retraining Board.

“For example, many call centers of Hong Kong companies are located in Guangzhou. But, nowadays, it’s no longer cheap to operate on the Chinese mainland. It’s time to get these services back to Hong Kong. They are perfect for the disabled, and it would be a win-win situation for companies as well as the community,” Leung added.

“Ironically, in the property management industry, we are always looking for more manpower to work as security guards and cleaners,” said Alkin Kwong, vice-chairman and chief executive of Hong Yip Holdings Ltd.

“It would be great if there is one government-established center,  rather than many different organizations, to gather all the information on potential human resources, so that it would be a lot easier for us to find these forgotten workforces,” Kwong said.

“With the government as the middle man, it would also be much easier to build trust between employers and employees,” he added.

Meanwhile, a new model of valuation is evolving strongly among the younger generation of workers. Engaging them is becoming an increasingly challenging task for employers.

According to Stephen Wong, adjunct associate professor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a recent survey of 1,200 young people found that the labor force is changing.

Only 60 percent of the younger generation wanted a full-time job, while 20 percent of respondents indicated they preferred to freelance. Moreover, only 24 percent, less than a fourth, still believe that career development is more important than life development, while a 35 percent of youths thought that securing income is more important than developing personal interests.

“Hong Kong’s young people have shown a very different attitude towards work compared with the older generation,” said Wong. “Nowadays, more and more young people prefer to do part-time jobs and want to be their own boss.”

“This evolving trend clearly has an impact on the labor market. It’s a task for the business community to engage youths, inspire them and work with a model that’s more acceptable to young people. But as long as the younger generation is engaged, they could be very creative and productive,” he said.

Francis Ngai, founder and chief executive officer of Social Ventures Hong Kong, reckoned that workplace innovation to promote happiness and promise youths that they are not exploited.

“Having part-time jobs has become a trend as more people want to reserve some time for their own business,” Ngai said. “Employers can offer flexibility in working hours. Apart from that, we should think about how to leave more space for individual development in the office. Besides financial incentives, a better working environment can motivate workers of the younger generation.”


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