Part-timers, carers, domestic helpers focus for Hong Kong’s new labour minister
Law Chi-kwong expresses concern at shrinking labour pool as the population gets older
Hong Kong’s new labour minister hopes to get to the bottom of a surge in part-time workers so policies can be formulated accordingly to unleash the city’s full labour potential, as he warned of a shrinking workforce triggered by an ageing population.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong told the Post days before he was sworn in on July 1 that there were 150,000 part-time workers last year, up 17 per cent on the 128,000 in 2011.
The long-time University of Hong Kong academic said the government needed to find out whether these workers were retirees who used to be full-time workers, or housewives and single parents who had not worked before.
When such findings became available, Law said, the government would be able to formulate measures accordingly.
“Theoretically, if wages are increased, more people will be encouraged to join the labour force or increase their working hours, particularly part-time workers,” he said.
A statutory minimum wage finally came into effect in May 2011, mandating that employers must pay their staff at least HK$28 an hour. This was increased to HK$34.50 in May this year.
Law said that while the current level was “comparatively low by international standards”, whether it needed to rise over and above the rate of inflation would depend on the rate at which low-earners were retiring.
Watch: How far will the minimum wage get you in Hong Kong?
Another factor in play was the rate at which employers adopted technological advances that reduced the need for labour.
“There is a need for the government to closely monitor the trends before it can make sound policies,” he said.
But the clock is ticking as the city’s labour force is expected to peak at 3.71 million next year, declining to 3.51 million in 2035 before resuming modest growth.
Meanwhile, the percentage of residents aged 65 or over rose from just 10.3 per cent of the population in 1997 to 16 per cent in 2016. This is expected to balloon to 24 per cent by 2025. By 2041, it is projected that almost one in three will be aged 65 or above.
Watch: Why a nonagenarian Hong Kong carer feels longevity is a curse
Law also said that Hong Kong in future might struggle to recruit mainland Chinese to work as carers in homes for the elderly as wages in some mainland cities were catching up. The city might have to cast its net wider than Guangdong, just across the border, and look further inland such as Guizhou province, he said.
“But even then it won’t take too long for wages in these places to catch up.”
Law said domestic helpers should be offered training to take care of the elderly in their own homes.
“This is not really a short-term thing – it will probably last for a decade or more,” he said.
The city’s domestic workers, mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia, only have basic training on how to take care of the elderly before they come to Hong Kong. They lack the skills to take care of people with chronic diseases.
Hiring a professional to take care of an elderly person for several hours a day a few days a week could cost HK$10,000 a month. These are also short in supply.
Law also warned that in the long-run Indonesians could stop coming to work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong as their country’s economy was growing rapidly.
“Indonesians will stop coming to Hong Kong 10 years later. Why should they come?” he said. Indonesia’s economy grew 5.02 per cent last year.
The Social Welfare Department announced on Sunday that 400 training places at elderly or rehabilitation care service centres would be offered in the coming year for those who had completed Form Five or possessed an equivalent qualification.
On the hot issue of working hours, Law said it would be difficult to standardise working hours across the board. “How do we standardise working hours for professions such as doctors and lawyers? That would be difficult.”
Unions have long demanded a standard working week of 40 to 44 hours and an overtime rate of 1.5 times regular wages.