Sunday 27 October 2013

Hong Kong considers headhunting foreign talent

This is part of population strategy to address city's shrinking workforce
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 25 Oct 2013

HONG KONG is mulling over a proactive "we seek you" policy to attract foreign and mainland talents - a shift from its erstwhile laissez-faire approach.

And with sectors such as construction and retail saying they are in dire need of workers, the city could also ease the "flexibility" of its schemes that now strictly control the importation of foreign workers.

These are a key prong of an overarching population strategy launched yesterday for public consultation, as Chief Secretary Carrie Lam warned of the "dire consequences" of the city's low birth rate, greying population and shrinking workforce.

Other areas up for discussion include how couples could be encouraged to have more children, through incentives such as baby bonuses or longer parental leave. Public views are also being sought on how to get more women and the elderly to join the workforce. These are laid out in a report drawn up by a government-appointed commission to deliberate the city's population policy.

But what is not up for negotiation is a "population cap" - a call made by some who argue that the current population size of 7.15 million is more than enough, given the city's limited resources.

"If you say that seven million is enough, and we should cap it, that's unwise," Ms Lam told a press conference.

In her presentation, she showed that Hong Kong's average annual real gross domestic product growth in the past two decades was 4 per cent. Of this, 1 per cent was due to labour force growth; 3 per cent, productivity. "If the labour force shrinks, we will not achieve a 4 per cent growth rate unless productivity rises substantially," she said. Given current trends, the workforce will start contracting in five years, when it peaks at 3.71 million.

Ms Lam did not say what Hong Kong's optimal population growth rate or eventual size could be.

That the commission will have its work cut out to forge consensus over the next four months was clear from the onset.

The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions yesterday began a protest, saying any liberalisation of rules to bring in foreign workers is "short-term" and will hurt the interests of local workers.

While acknowledging that the subject of labour importation is a sensitive one, Ms Lam pointed out Hong Kong's severe shortage, with private-sector vacancies standing at 77,900 as of June.

Yet, the city imports just 2,415 workers at technician level and below, under a scheme that mandates priority for local workers.

Under this scheme, foreign workers brought in have to be given at least the median salary and the same benefits as their local peers.

In contrast, Singapore, which has a more flexible policy, has 884,900 such workers, Ms Lam said.

"It's a big difference from Singapore. So we have room... to improve the flexibility of the current schemes," she added.

She pledged that "any changes will consider the interests of local workers", without giving details.

Concurrently, the city should consider burnishing its lure for "global talent" to settle down and start families in Hong Kong, said Secretary for Security Lai Tung Kwok.

While rules for professionals entering Hong Kong are more lax, the profile of this group is largely determined by companies doing the hiring. There were 86,781 foreign and mainland professionals in Hong Kong last year.

Said the commission in its report: "Our talent admission schemes could be better coordinated with our broader economic development strategy by targeting specific groups of talented people who could facilitate Hong Kong's development in key industries." These include transport, innovative technology, manufacturing and professional services.

The commission pointed out Singapore's concerted efforts on this front, including the existence of a "strategic and skills-in-demand list" that gives those with such qualifications more consideration.

HK needs long-term fix for labour woes

Youngsters shun unglamorous jobs in construction, security and retail sectors
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 2 Nov 2013

MR SHAWN Li is 28, has an associate degree in human resources, and wears a tie to work daily in a posh office building in Causeway Bay.

There, he is a security supervisor. Duties range from searching for lost purses to checking on loitering drunks.

It wasn't what he expected after graduating five years ago, he admits. After working in an administrative job, he applied with Securitas Security Services, hoping for a management position. Instead, he ended up as a security guard. "It was not the ideal work I expected but at least it is well-paying," he says.

Mr Li started out earning HK$12,000 (S$1,920) but now takes home HK$18,000, for working 9am to 6pm, five days a week. He gets a fancy title of chief security supervisor, wears office attire instead of a uniform, and does remote monitoring via computers instead of patrolling.

As industries such as construction, security and retail complain of an escalating labour crunch in the past year - vacancies reached 77,858 in June - companies are trying to beat it by boosting productivity, introducing technology and paying more to woo people.

Many breathed sighs of relief when the government announced last week it will consider relaxing rules for hiring foreign workers. Yet, the issue is controversial, and in the near future at least, companies will have to continue to reach out to the local workforce.

The construction industry, for one, is 15 to 20 per cent short of workers to fulfil their projects, according to surveys by the Hong Kong Contractors Association and Hong Kong Federation of Electrical and Mechanical Contractors. It has 250,000 active workers, half of whom are above age 50.

In the security industry, which has about 140,000 active officers, the shortage is in the region of 12 to 15 per cent, says Mr Douglas Renwick, chairman of the Hong Kong Security Association.

A key reason for the labour crunch is massive infrastructure projects such as a bridge linking Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai, and the ramping up of public housing construction. The volume of public works was HK$40 billion in 2008, reached HK$70 billion last year and is expected to hit HK$100 billion by 2015, says the Construction Industry Council's deputy director Alex Leung.

All this is putting a squeeze on the city's 3.9 million labour force, whose unemployment rate hovers at a low 3.3 per cent.

The shortage has already created problems. An engineering industry insider who declined to be named said while accident rates at construction sites had been declining, there was a "significant" pick-up in recent months. Official statistics from the Labour Department stop in June. Stories of manpower "poaching" are common, says Mr David O'Rear, an economist from the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

One way is by raising pay.

Overall salaries increased 5.2 per cent from June last year to this June, though it is just 0.6 per cent after inflation. Trades that are particularly desperate, for instance construction, have seen salaries jump further, by between 40 per cent and 70 per cent compared to 2008, says Mr Leung. Specialist barbenders now take home an average of HK$1,543 a day, while a general labourer pockets HK$713.

Food and beverage, another industry hard hit by the labour shortage, is also finding ways around the problem.

Using part-timers - an arrangement most prefer as they need to work just four to five hours a day - is one, says Ms Clare Chan, manager of Lippo Chiu Chow restaurant in Admiralty. Another is to tempt workers with perks like taxi fare reimbursement if they work late.

But others in the retail sector are at the end of their tether, and are contemplating the year-end holiday season with dread. Mr Kenson Li, assistant manager at the Muji store in Sha Tin, says: "We are making do with one staff member for every 10 customers at any time. There's no choice, we just have to cope."

Beyond the immediate future, these industries - generally seen as menial with little career prospects - are trying to restructure and burnish their images.

"The hours are long and that is prohibitive when we want to be competitive in getting workers," says Mr Renwick of the security line. "The nature of the industry has to change." One way is to use more technology, as in Europe, where officers monitor four or five locations remotely, he says.

"Then, it's more IT-based, and the guards are described as technicians, working in control rooms."

Meanwhile, the construction council is stepping up training schemes to churn out about 7,000 new workers a year. Trainees are encouraged to dream big: going from being workers to bosses of their own companies one day. It is also reaching out to the young: Besides sponsoring TV series featuring construction workers, it last month prepared materials on the industry that teachers can use in liberal studies classes.

In the long run though, Hong Kong needs to fix what Mr O'Rear calls a "skills mismatch". "Our education system is structured such that everyone expects to go to university, and won't consider jobs such as construction or nursing."

Even banks are finding it challenging to get workers for back office functions such as IT and clerical work, he says. Some suggest an apprenticeship programme such as in Germany where companies work with vocational training institutes to train workers.

Mr Li the security supervisor says more such efforts are needed to disabuse young Hong Kongers of the notion that success means sitting in an office. "I was bored initially, working as a security guard," he admits.

"But I realised I was picking up skills by interacting with people, and solving their problems, rather than just doing paper filing.

"Fresh graduates want glamourous work. But the reality is that not everyone can get those jobs. We need to be realistic."

Industries hope govt will ease strict controls

By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 2 Nov 2013

THE issue of importing foreign workers is a sensitive one in Hong Kong.

Beyond worries that they will depress wages here, one key ramification is that they will be entitled to permanent residency after living in Hong Kong for seven years, said labour economist Lui Hon Kwong of Lingan University.

Far more can be done to make jobs more attractive to locals, he said. "In the past, policemen were seen as corrupt gangsters, but the government actively changed their image, setting up cadet schools and changed people's mindsets.

"We will have to find ways to do it again."

But industries are hoping that the government will relax its strict controls over foreign workers - a topic now up for public consultation. As of end-July, there were 2,597 such workers here.

No security company thus far had been successful in its application, said Mr Douglas Renwick, chairman of the Hong Kong Security Association, arguing that there is room for "targeted importation" of workers such as former Indian or Nepalese soldiers with military experience.

"Importation could be based on quotas or levies," he added.

The Construction Industry Council's Mr Alex Leung said foreign workers will be especially useful in what it calls "sunshine" specialities such as bar-bending - which are unpopular as the workers have little respite from the weather - as well as jobs such as tunnelling, which are ad-hoc projects.


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