Think outside the box to provide care for the elderly

Surely a professionally trained care worker – imported or domestic, and supported by proper facilities – is worth several foreign maids with low skills

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 2:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 2:07am

When Hong Kong had trouble finding people to take care of children while more mothers joined the workforce four decades ago, we started importing foreign maids. Now, as our population ages and the elderly need care at home, we are back to the same old trick – import more cheap foreign labour for domestic use.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong has come up with some extraordinary headline numbers. We will need 240,000 domestic helpers in the next three decades, according to Law, on top of the 360,000 who currently live in the city.

Leaving aside the morality of having an underclass of 600,000 foreigners, what do these projections say about the government’s population policy, or the lack of one?

Hong Kong is not the first developed economy to face an ageing population. Japan – which has an average age of almost 47 – and Germany have had to think outside the box and experiment with innovative solutions.

Elderly in Hong Kong encouraged to volunteer, in return for care later, in ‘time bank’ projects

Hong Kong, whose population currently has an average age of 43.5, plans to just hire more foreign maids.

It is all the more disappointing that it’s coming from Law, a former Democrat and veteran scholar specialising in social welfare policy at the University of Hong Kong.

The problem with hiring more maids to take care of elderly is the same as that for taking care of children. The government artificially keeps the maids’ wages low, so even lower-income families can afford them, and deprives them of the same rights as other expatriate workers to make them “invisible” to the body politic.

This means the government could wash its hands, for decades, of universal child care while bosses could push employees to work long hours without having to devise family-friendly work policies. This is now being repeated with elderly care.

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To be fair, Law has proposed other solutions. For example, pre-retired middle-aged workers can volunteer their services in exchange for post-retirement care. But foreign maids will always be the real government solution.

Japan has state-subsided insurance for the elderly on top of the usual welfare benefits. Its businesses from convenience stores and housing estates to robotics and other hi-tech services are profiting from the elderly market. Hong Kong has barely started a public debate.

Surely a professionally trained care worker – imported or domestic, and supported by proper facilities – is worth several foreign maids with low skills.

We have the money; we are just out of ideas.