16 November 2018
There are about 1.15 million people aged 65 or over, or 16 percent of Hong Kong's population. Photo: Hong Kong Christian Service
There are about 1.15 million people aged 65 or over, or 16 percent of Hong Kong's population. Photo: Hong Kong Christian Service

Answer to our aging population: Import foreign care workers

Last week, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong warned of the looming challenges posed by the “aging tsunami” and his views immediately drew public attention.

According to Law’s projection, by 2047, the number of people over 85 in Hong Kong is likely to be 4.2 times that of today. And our rapidly aging population will have far-reaching social and economic implications for our city.

Law’s description of the “aging tsunami” facing us is in fact hardly an exaggeration. It is beyond dispute that Hong Kong has already become an aging society, with the number of citizens aged over 65 currently totaling 1.15 million and accounting for 16 percent of our population.

Given our declining birth rate, it is almost certain that our aging population will continue to race ahead.

An aging population would not only pose serious problems for our economy but may also give rise to another pressing issue: who is going to take care of our elderly in the future?

According to the Elderly Services Program Plan published by the government in June this year, it is estimated that the total demand for subsidized long-term care (LTC) services for the elderly is likely to increase from about 60,000 places in 2016 to over 78,000 places in 2030.

However, despite growing public demand and enormous market potential for LTC services for the elderly, the local nursing home industry has long been plagued by a staff shortage and having huge difficulty attracting new blood, not least because the typical pay of HK$14,000-HK$16,000 a month of nursing home workers is hardly attractive.

Besides, many people, particularly the younger ones, often regard the nursing home industry as an “offensive trade” and are therefore reluctant to join it. Nursing home workers themselves are quickly aging as well, with the majority of them aged over 50 on average.

As such, as Secretary Law has pointed out, it is inevitable that we will have to import foreign labor for the local nursing home industry in the near future.

Whether or not to import foreign labor has always been a highly sensitive issue, and would always touch a nerve in society whenever the idea is proposed.

It is because there is a deeply entrenched view, particularly among the labor sector and trade unions, that importing foreign labor into Hong Kong is a zero-sum game, because it means taking away jobs from local workers, hence their knee-jerk opposition to the idea.

However, in our opinion, we believe importing foreign workers can also create a win-win situation and benefit society as a whole. It all depends on how we do it.

Let’s not forget there are more than 350,000 workers from Southeast Asian countries working as foreign domestic helpers in local households and their influx has never sparked any backlash from local trade unions.

It is because these foreign domestic helpers are intended to serve an isolated market that is totally separate from the local job market.

Besides, probably no local worker would be interested in competing for jobs with foreign domestic helpers, since their statutory minimum wage is only HK$4,310 a month.

Moreover, the government has imposed rigorous regulations on foreign domestic helpers in order to prevent them from threatening the job opportunities of local workers.

For example, they are required by law to stay and work in their employers’ home at all times and are strictly forbidden to seek any extra part-time job.

And thanks to the carefully planned and strictly enforced government regulation on foreign domestic helpers, they have never provoked any controversy in society or discontent from the local labor sector despite their continuously growing numbers.

Given our successful experience in importing foreign domestic helpers for local households, perhaps the same approach can be applied to the local nursing home industry as well.

Simply put, why doesn’t the government consider importing foreign care workers specializing in taking care of the elderly to fill vacancies in our local nursing homes and imposing the same rigorous regulations on them as it does on foreign domestic helpers so that they won’t take away jobs from local workers?

We believe importing foreign care workers to work in our nursing home industry would prove both a viable solution to the acute labor shortage in the industry. At the same time, the government also needs to increase the supply of nursing homes.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 1

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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