The Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) is expected to suffer further delays through a shortage of manpower. A recent gathering of 24 private sector companies preparing to offer pension schemes under the government plan estimated they will need to recruit at least 2,000 more staff. Another 500 will be required by the MPF Authority when it is formed, according to Greg Willis, the convenor of the meeting and chief executive of HSBC Provident Fund Services. 'There is already a shortage in the labour market and MPF will exacerbate it,' he said. And those numbers are dependent on computerisation - an issue the MPF has yet to tackle. 'In the private sector, we now have plans to link up electronically so information can be speedily passed through a network,' Mr Willis said. 'But, more importantly, we hope the MPF can link to it.' Until now, MPF officials have not been provided with sufficient funding to computerise. But Mr Willis warned: 'The information flow will be massive, not only for administration but also with details about investments, employers and staff coming and going. 'If this business is conducted on paper it will blow staff needs out of all proportion. 'We estimate at least 100 people will be required just to input data. Hundreds more will be needed to move those files around. Forests of trees could die for the MPF.' He said the MPF had no choice but to computerise. 'Trying to organise this without computers is unimaginable. In fact, MPF would have been impossible if someone had not invented the computer.' He said the private sector was still 'holding its breath' in the hope that legislation was passed by the provisional legislature before next year's elections. With both the Chief Executive and Beijing committed to the scheme, Mr Willis said: 'Despite the politics, I am still more than confident that MPF will proceed. The question is when?' If the provisional legislature passes the bill before the SAR's first elections, employers are likely to be given 12 months to buy into pension fund schemes. 'The Government calls it a compliance period, we call it a sales period,' Mr Willis said. 'The media will be flooded with advertisements for MPF products and employers will be inundated with salesmen attempting to sell them schemes.' He expects MPF to begin on January 1, 2000. The millennium, it seems, will mark a quantum leap in social philosophy for Hong Kong. Until now, only 30 per cent of the three million workforce participates in a retirement scheme - among the lowest participation rate in any developed economy. Only 16,400 employers (out of over 300,000) have set up plans for their staff. 'In effect, over 70 per cent of the working population is without any form of financial security for when they retire,' Mr Willis said. In addition, existing retirement schemes favour 'higher grade' employees. Eight out 10 professionals and managers are covered, compared to only 22 per cent of the rest - who represent 85 per cent of the workforce. 'Many felt we were heading for trouble,' he said. Apart from the absence of retirement protection plans, there were problems with many that did exist. Several were under-funded and many had all their assets either invested in or loaned to the employer. Others were totally unfunded. Something needed to be done and MPF seemed the solution. 'One of the major criticisms was that it would not provide for the needy and those who did not or could not work,' Mr Willis said. 'But this argument seems to confuse the purpose of the MPF. It was never intended to provide a welfare safety net for everyone, but simply assist those who work to provide for their retirement. With MPF in place, the Government could also establish an old-age pension to provide for the needy. 'MPF will be a substantial benefit in 20 or 30 years when we have all had the opportunity to save substantial sums in our MPF accounts,' he said.