The number of Hongkongers signing up for government help finding a job has plunged 70 per cent in the past 10 years, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the service. Each job fair funded by the taxpayer placed as few as three applicants in new positions, according to the latest public audit. “The needs of jobseekers have changed ... The Labour Department needs to conduct a comprehensive review of general employment services,” a report by Hong Kong’s director of audit said on Wednesday. There were also falls in the number of candidates placed directly by the department in jobs or referred to potential employers, as well as in the number of visitors to government recruitment centres. The drop in people using the service far outpaced the decline in unemployment across the city. Between 2008 and 2017, the number out of work decreased 3.6 per cent, from 128,000 to 123,400. But demand for the department’s services dropped from 168,000 jobseekers in 2008 to fewer than 50,000 in 2017. In the past five years, referrals and direct placements through the department almost halved. Over the last three years, 12 of the department’s 13 job centres across the city recorded declines in visitors ranging from 3 to 34 per cent, amounting to a total drop of more than 69,000 visits. No progress yet on blacklist of rogue recruiters to aid Hong Kong jobseekers, especially domestic helpers Local district-based job fairs were also ineffective. The 958 events held in 2018 produced an average of 26 interviews per fair and saw just three people hired. The department explained the figures by saying Hong Kong had a robust labour market and a plethora of other job search platforms. It also said many jobseekers contacted employers directly through a “user-friendly arrangement” facilitated by the department. “This arrangement, which allows employers to open up their contact details to direct applications without requiring jobseekers to register first with the department ... coupled with the falling number of unemployed people amid the tight labour market, might have resulted in the decrease,” the department said. Tang Wing-him, a spokesman for concern group Waste Picker Platform, said he found the department’s job centre and fairs unhelpful when he accompanied an elderly street cardboard collector there earlier this month. The 64-year-old so-called “cardboard granny”, one of many in Hong Kong, made headlines two weeks ago after labour and welfare minister Dr Law Chi-kwong asked her to turn to the department for help when she told Law and legislators of the hardships she endured. “An agent at the centre helped make three calls but all were fruitless,” Tang said. “Later, at the job fair, another agent didn’t look any further into her health problems when we said she might not fit a job folding bedsheets due to an old wound on her back. Chinese women jobseekers told to use hotline to report gender discrimination “It appeared, to me, that the department didn’t sort out jobs suitable for the elderly, and its agents didn’t care how long a job would be done for.” Alexa Chow Yee-ping, managing director of AMAC Human Resources Consultants, suggested the department make resources available to set up special programmes for the elderly and disabled. “General services are less needed because the unemployment rate has been low in recent years, and even grass-roots jobseekers, who are the department’s major targets, can look for jobs on their laptops and mobile phones,” Chow said. The 20-year recruiter called on the department to tailor services to the needs of various sectors of society. “The department was lazy by simply expanding the employment programme for the middle-aged to cover the elderly,” Chow said. “The two groups are very different. The current temporary subsidy available to employers who hire middle-aged jobseekers hardly incentivises them to hire the elderly.” The audit report also said officials needed to encourage more employers to join its programmes. It is a twice-yearly assessment of city-funded projects and is compiled by the Audit Commission, which does not notify government departments or projects in advance that they will be scrutinised.