Getting down to work
When unemployment figures edge towards four per cent, and retrenchments and closures become a daily event, it is difficult for people not to feel downhearted, whatever Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen may urge. Some of the most popular and long-established firms are not being spared the financial squeeze. Battered by the fallout from the Asian currency crisis, the fall-off in tourism, high interest rates and crippling rent bills, companies which once seemed rock solid have been among the first hit.
The prospect of more bankruptcies and layoffs in the next quarter is hardly a cheering prospect, and it is not reassuring to be told that there is little the Government can do. It might help if it were to do whatever it could, as quickly as possible. But the employment taskforce which has been set up is not scheduled to have its first meeting until next month. That hardly conveys a sense of urgency, and might give rise to a perception, fairly or otherwise, that it is little more than a cosmetic exercise, promising a surfeit of talking and not much in the way of action.
The community will be expecting Mr Tsang's think-tank to come up with practical solutions which can be quickly implemented. Effective retraining schemes are an obvious requirement. Relaxing hawking restrictions to allow people to try a little self-sufficiency in the marketplace might be another. Street stalls used to be a main tourist attraction, but a lot of the character and variety has gone out of them through redevelopment and tighter regulations. Bringing them back will restore a bit of colour and vibrance to the streets.
There are 50,000 unfilled jobs, and a work-hungry society which should be queueing to fill them. There is a skill shortage in some trades, and a culture imbued with the work ethic. With more than 110,000 in the job market, it should not be beyond official ingenuity to bring the two together. Until then the course which people appear to be taking on their own initiative, and which Executive Councillor Chung Sze-yuen advocates, is to tighten the belt and save money until the economy picks up. That is a natural reaction, but does nothing to keep the economy moving. Less consumer spending only makes life more difficult for companies struggling to stay afloat.
The other headache for retailers is rent, which has yet to match the fall in property prices. There are signs of a more realistic approach from landlords. Some hotel chains have set a good example by reducing rents to the specialty retailers in their premises by up to 40 per cent. But an across-the-board adjustment is needed to ease this widespread burden, thus helping to ensure the survival of shops and jobs they provide.