The accuracy of the government's manpower projections have been called into doubt after the South China Morning Post found that previous projections were well off the mark.
The administration has been accused of overstating the city's manpower demand in order to justify approving more imported labour, while questions have been raised about the effectiveness of policies drafted on the basis of the current projections. The government says the discrepancies in previous projections were in part caused by unexpected shocks to the economy including the Sars epidemic in 2003 and the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The Post compared the government projections with the eventual manpower figures for the years 2005, released in 2000, and 2007, released in 2003, and found that many of the projections were overestimated or underestimated, in some cases by as much as 40 per cent.
"The government was obviously trying to pave the way for more labour imports by inflating the number of construction workers the city needs," labour-sector lawmaker Tang Ka-piu, of the Federation of Trade Unions, said.
Tang was concerned that an influx of imported workers would drive down salaries and mean fewer opportunities for locals.
"Resources will be spent on the wrong areas due to the inaccuracy. For example, there may be too many people trained in jobs for which we do not need that many."
In May, the Labour and Welfare Bureau submitted a paper to the Legislative Council that included part of its manpower projection report for 2022.
The report estimated that the city would lack some 118,000 workers by 2022 - up from its forecast two years ago of a shortage of 14,000 by 2018.
The three previous projections made by the government were for 2018, 2007 and 2005.
For 2005, it was projected that 350,500 workers would be needed in the construction industry. It turned out that the figure was overestimated by 25 per cent.
For 2007, the projection of 307,600 construction workers was a 10 per cent overestimate.
For manpower supply, it was projected that 485,400 people with a university degree would be available to work in 2005.
It turned out that figure was underestimated by 38 per cent.
The 2007 projections for people with a lower-secondary and upper-secondary education were overestimated by 18 per cent and underestimated by 17 per cent, respectively.
Education-sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said that the inaccurate forecasts meant that the government might not offer enough, or might offer too many, courses in specific subjects. "A discrepancy of 40 per cent is a lot. It means that, when the government plans education policies, it needs to be very flexible," he said.
A Labour and Welfare Bureau spokesman cited the September 11 attacks on the US and severe acute respiratory syndrome as he explained the "unforeseen and unpredictable shocks" the city experienced after 2000, when the 2005 projections were released.
"[The events] caused profound setbacks to our economy and depressed the growth in the manpower requirements of various sectors, such as the construction, financial services and real-estate sectors," he said.
He added that the actual manpower figures for 2005, provided by the Census and Statistics Department, were compiled according to definitions and coverage that were "not exactly the same" as those used in the projections.