Public consultation on ageing population slammed by experts
5-point plan to solve workforce crisis criticised as too vague, with one academic dismissing consultation as a 'failure' just as it is launched
Olga Wong, Ada Lee and Jennifer Ngo
A proposed five-pronged approach to managing challenges arising from Hong Kong's ageing population came under fire yesterday for being too vague, as a public consultation to look for solutions began.
The five strategies suggested by government advisers seek a more proactive response to the city's shrinking workforce before problems worsen in the future.
Ideas include ways to tap into the inactive population such as housewives and retirees to encourage them to return to the workplace.
But a veteran academic and lawmakers gave a thumbs-down to the report, noting that it posed open questions for the public without giving any concrete proposals.
They also asked whether the government was attempting to avoid incurring public anger by not suggesting any controversial ideas.
Professor Nelson Chow Wing-sun of the University of Hong Kong, who is leading a study on pension schemes, described the exercise as a "failure" even as it had only just started.
"It lacks direction and a target for us to see what the government wants to achieve by drafting population policies," he said.
Alarm bells are sounding as the workforce is projected to shrink five years from now. By 2041, only 1.8 people of working age - defined as those between 15 and 64 - will support one dependent elderly person financially, down from a ratio of 5:1 this year.
The proposed strategies include expanding the labour force by encouraging more women and retirees to return to work; enhancing the quality of the workforce by improving education and minimising skills mismatch; searching for global talent and upgrading the labour import system; fostering a supportive environment for raising children; and helping the elderly to stay active in the community.
During the four-month exercise, the public is being asked for responses to 13 questions listed in the consultation report.
"We do not propose measures right away because we want to see if the public will agree on these directions," said Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who leads the steering committee on population policy, adding that concrete measures would follow.
Official data shows a potential workforce of 1.6 million who are now economically inactive, including 525,000 women homemakers aged 30 to 59 and 240,200 retirees aged 50 to 64.
Lam said the government was open to any family-friendly measures, including the use of subsidies and tax incentives to encourage more births.
But she warned: "We have to be mindful of the measures' effectiveness while injecting a huge amount of resources, if the city is to keep a low-tax environment. Is encouraging a more flexible working environment, such as part-time jobs, in government and private companies even more effective?"
The report highlights the possibility of attracting residents who had migrated, and their offspring, back to the city. But it barely touched on how 200,000 children born to mainland parents in Hong Kong could be integrated into society, other than by adding seats in schools.
There is also no mention of retirement protection, housing or financial impacts, which Lam said had been studied by other government bodies.
She also made it clear that the government would rule out capping the population, lifting the ban on mainlanders giving birth or tightening the screening of one-way permit applications.
"Hong Kong has no room to control the approval process, according to the Basic Law. The application should also be maintained for family reunion purposes," Lam said.
A former head of the Central Policy Unit, Leo Goodstadt, said support services such as hospital beds and paediatric staff were just as important in encouraging births.
Lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah, of the Civic Party, said the document was too general and lacked concrete suggestions.