Working out the future

SECONDARY school students take up part-time jobs for various reasons. Many have a genuine need for money to pay for school fees or a pair of brand-name shoes. Some merely want to get work experience. Others are thinking of making new friends.

There are plenty of jobs around. The labour-intensive servicing industry is in constant need of manpower. Jobs are commonly found in fast-food restaurant chains, fashion boutiques, supermarkets and 24-hour convenience stores. Imported labour from China may have eased the under-supply to some extent, but there is still a shortage which must be filled by part-time student workers.

On average, part-time jobs pay $20 an hour. Working hours can be quite flexible, with shifts of four hours each. During weekends, students may even work for 10 hours in Chinese restaurants. Duties generally include chores in the kitchen, at the counter and out in the street, cleaning, serving, loading and unloading.

Most of the students taking up part-time jobs are between 16 and 18 and studying Secondary Four and Five. Below 15, they are not employable by law. Above 18, if still at school, they have already crossed the threshold of the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) and are in Secondary Six preparing frantically for the Advanced Level Examination.

Student workers are in many cases academic low achievers. They find themselves inadequate at school. They believe that they will not have a chance in the HKCEE. Often they are still in school only because they or their parents want them to complete theirsecondary school education.

Some are young people who have problems getting along with their family and so take part-time jobs to stay away from home.

In the morning they go to school, many fool around with their schoolmates or sometimes even their teachers, then they go to their work-places to make a few dollars. In the evening when they finish their shift, they go home, watch television or play videogames. The next day is the same.

They have no time for assignments and no energy for classes. They simply doze off.

These young people who are part of the general manpower pool for Hong Kong's servicing industry are in fact contributing to the wealth and prosperity of the territory.

Their labour, being cheap, cuts employers' operating costs and guarantees profit. Moreover, because most of these young people will not have any chance of further education, they will soon join the full-time labour force in the service trades.

Twenty years ago, the only part-time job available to students was private tutoring, which only a few were qualified for. Students who were behind in their studies would have to stick to their books and perform to gain qualifications.

With part-time jobs so easily available, students can plunge into them any time they feel bored with their books, when they want money to spend or when they want the company of students with similar background.

It is time all parties concerned, including the Labour Department, Education Department, school heads, parents and employers got together to study the phenomenon in terms of part-time workers' well-being while at work, their long-term educational and career needs and, most importantly, to make sure they are not being exploited because of ignorance, immaturity or shortsightedness.

Has part-time work, for instance, been partly responsible for the 3,000 students who quit school in 1992-93? This is food for thought for all those affected by the phenomenon.