City Weekend

A sign of the times: traditional jobs that are long gone with Hong Kong’s changing workforce

Mining has long gone as an industry in Hong Kong and technological change is fast forcing other sectors to be consigned to history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 April, 2017, 10:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 April, 2017, 12:42pm

Hong Kong’s post-war workforce is fast becoming a distant memory as some industries decline and rapid technological development means manual jobs which dominated the labour market for decades become obsolete.

The job of miner is just one which has been consigned to history.

Lee Kiu-sui worked in the iron mines of Ma On Shan in the New Territories for 15 years.

The 70-year-old began his mining career after graduating from high school in 1967 – the year of the Cultural Revolution riots – after his father expressed concern about him working in the urban areas.

He worked his way up the ranks to become a mine blaster, often enduring dangerous conditions.

On one occasion, carbon monoxide filled a 192-metre tunnel he was working in and he had to help two miners escape. On another occasion, a tunnel collapsed shortly after he and his colleagues had been working there.

Despite the difficulties, Lee remembers his employment there fondly and was understandably upset when the mine was forced to close in 1976 due to high costs and declining ore deposits. All mining operations stopped by 1981.

“We were like brothers in the mine,” he said. “We were a strong family. I liked the natural scenery around us too. I felt very sad when the mine closed”.

At the peak of Hong Kong’s mining industry in the 1970s, 6,000 workers were employed to produce about 98,000 tonnes of iron ore each year.

After the mines closed, former miners were forced to look for work in manufacturing and logistics in Kowloon. Lee went on to work as a tunneller for the Mass Transit Railway Corporation.

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His experiences are among 25 personal stories to be documented in a new book about Hong Kong mining, with the working title Ma On Shan Mine Quarry Memories. It is set to be published in June.

“Initially I felt frustrated, but after I left the mine, I found the world was so big, there were many opportunities to survive outside,” he said.

Rise of the robots

Miners are far from the only workers to lose their jobs. The work of the city’s former bus and tram conductors disappeared when cash boxes and electronic Octopus cards were introduced.

Meanwhile, many other jobs are in steady decline. Bicycle delivery workers for traditional cha chaan teng tea houses are fast being replaced by motorbike takeaway delivery services such as FoodPanda and Deliveroo and could one day be replaced by drones.

Digital technology has also led to the decline of traditional stencil making and letterpress printing, with few young people prepared to learn the craft to replace the industry’s remaining workers.

The government has pledged to preserve a small selection of traditional trades through its Intangible Cultural Heritage initiative. The jobs of cheongsam maker, milk tea maker, paper crafter and bamboo theatre maker are being considered for long-term preservation in a three-month public consultation, with a final list expected this summer.

Professor Terence Chong Tai-leung, an associate professor of economics at Chinese University, said the development of a more digital-based economy was beneficial for the city’s position internationally, but admitted the main social cost was that it forced older workers out of the labour market.

“For older manual workers, it becomes difficult for them to return to work,” he said. “They may get some subsidies from the government so they can live their lives. But there are no young people to enter those industries, so it becomes a dying industry. Some old trades need to be preserved.”

He added that in some ways Hong Kong’s increasing reliance on technology was negatively affecting social cohesion.

“We rarely know our neighbour these days,” he said. “People use mobile phones. We do not talk to each other, so we are not as close as we were before.”

Commenting on the future of the city’s economy, Chong said he was only optimistic about its growth for the next 10 or 20 years, after which he thought Hong Kong would become a “dying city” due to the mainland’s “One Belt, One Road” policy.

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“In 20 years, technology will replace a lot of things, even banks,” he said. “A lot more things will be done online, so Hong Kong’s position will become less obviously useful. Cities like Shanghai will overtake Hong Kong. The sad thing is that after ‘One Belt, One Road’ takes effect, there is no way back.”

But Professor John Carroll, associate dean of the University of Hong Kong’s arts faculty, emphasised that the emergence of a more “faceless” society based on technology was not a “uniquely Hong Kong thing”, and many comparable cities were experiencing the same trend.

He also warned against the “romanticisation of industrialisation” in relation to Hong Kong’s former status as a manufacturing hub, as the process had also led to undesirable consequences such as a rise in child labour.

Pace of change

In Ho Yin-ping’s Trade, Industrial Restructuring and Development in Hong Kong, the author explains how after the second world war, employment opportunities predominantly arose in the manufacturing sector. Between 1961 and 1971, 61 per cent of the city’s overall employment growth was provided by five rapidly expanding export-oriented manufacturing industries.

But in recent decades, the financial sector became a greater driver of high-end economic growth, although the sector now faces strong competition from cities such as Singapore and Shanghai. Hong

Kong has also traditionally been the transport and logistics hub of East Asia.

While manufacturing in the city has declined, with much of it moving to the mainland and Vietnam, the rise of information technology continues to accelerate.

Audrey Low, managing director for recruitment agency Adecco in Hong Kong and Macau, said the city’s information technology sector could see total spending of HK$175 billion by the end of the year, making it one of the most significant areas for workforce growth.

Other growth areas included health care, educational services, financial technology, pharmaceuticals and medical services, she said.

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“Everything is digital,” she said. “Sometimes technology can be a scary road. There is a sense that technology is killing jobs. But whilst it is true to an extent, the labour market needs to change; it cannot stay the same. It is just about creating a different type of job.”

Jordan Wong Chun, from the Hong Kong History Society, said he blamed the dominance of certain large corporations in the labour market for negatively impacting communities, rather than the rise of technology-based employment.

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“In my opinion, the biggest impact on communities is not from technology-based employment, but developer hegemony,” he said. “And if we talk about traditional occupations such as mining and lantern making, I think it’s only due to the diminishing of the demand-supply chain.”