Welcome foreign workers if we cannot fill shortages

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 2:55pm

Manpower shortfalls and mismatches are common problems in many countries. A sophisticated economy like Hong Kong's is no exception. Over the years, such issues are mainly tackled through market adjustments and government retraining. Importing labour is a last resort. Our challenges are aggravated by a rapidly ageing population and a shrinking workforce.

According to the latest official manpower study, there will be a shortage of 118,000 workers by 2022. This is a significant jump from the 14,000 by 2018 in a similar forecast two years ago. The study by the Labour and Welfare Bureau also warns of a serious mismatch between the job skills required and workers' levels of education. There will be an excess of 53,400 postgraduate and 29,300 diploma and sub-degree holders; but an undersupply of 50,800 people with a first degree and 149,800 people with only secondary education.

As expected, the projections have been questioned by unionist lawmakers, who accuse the government of paving the way for a wider importation of labour. Officials say the estimates are just based on trends, assumptions and existing policies. It is also difficult to pin down specific sectors, as workers and job seekers are free to change jobs.

Only time will tell whether the projections are accurate. But the idea of importing labour to meet shortages that may or may not arise in eight years' time is a difficult one to sell. Nonetheless, the figures provide the backdrop to discuss the needs of specific industries in the medium and longer term.

A strong economy needs to be propelled by a sustainable workforce. The gloomy picture painted by the study does warrant close monitoring. A government committee on population policy is exploring ways to deal with the shrinking workforce, including enhancing the labour importation mechanism. When there is a genuine shortage of workers in a particular field and it cannot be filled by locals, we should open our door to foreign workers.