The unemployment problem in Hong Kong

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Introduction The unemployment rate became a hot topic in the past few months when it rose to 3.5 per cent, a recent high for almost 10 years. The jobless rate was higher than the 3.2 per cent unemployment rate recorded in the May to July period. The underemployment rate in the June to August period rose to 2.5 per cent from 2.3 per cent in the May to July period. Until recently, most workers who lost their jobs were from the manufacturing sector. They were middle-aged factory workers with few skills and little education. But in recent months a large number of employees have been laid off in the retail and restaurant businesses. Unemployment has spilled over to the service sector from manufacturing sector. Hong Kong is facing a prolonged economic downturn. The high unemployment rate has raised many social and economic problems. For example, the number of people who commit suicide is increased. It is because more people had lost their jobs for a long time. It is a serious threat to the lives of the poor. The unemployed people may also feel that it is unmeaningful to live. As a result, they will commit suicide to solve the problem. Moreover, the high unemployment rate results in the increase of the rate of crime. There was an unemployed man who stole rice because he was too hungry and he did not have money to even buy food! We can know how serious the unemployment rate is. By the way, higher unemployment rate causes lower purchasing power of people. A lot of kinds of business are affected. Many people lose confidence in economics of Hong Kong. They do not believe unemployment will be improved. Some say that the Government should provide immediate assistance for the jobless. Some also say unemployment is due to the attraction of cheap labor across the border. The Government can no longer play the role of a bystander. All of these above show the influence of the unemployment. In spite of how many people who have talked about the topic of unemployment, everyone will be concerned about this topic. The following sections will analyze this hot topic. Reasons for unemployment in Hong Kong 1. Faster growth in total labor supply relative to that of total employment In 1993 and 1994, the increase in Hong Kong labor force is 2.9% and 3.5% respectively. At the end of 1993, the total labour supply is 2 970 000. Change in the total labour supply is determined by the population growth, total employment and the emigration condition. If the population growth and the total employment is stable, the extra labour supply will increase the total labour supply. This extra labour supply are mostly from the influx of illegal immigrants from China, imported labour ( 30,000 ), hiring of expatriates ( net increase is 40,000 from 1992 to 1994 ) and the returnees from overseas. Thus, the supply of labour is greater than the demand and gives pressure on employment. From March to May of 1995, the total labour supply had risen 4.4% but the total employment had just increased 3.6%, so this aggravated the unemployment rate. However, this is just a superficial reason. The following reasons can explain the reason of unemployment in a deeper way. 2. Change in the economic structure The economic structure in Hong Kong has changed from labour intensive to high technology and large capital intensive. Also, it changes from manufacturing oriented to service oriented industries. Therefore, the manufacturing factories move to China for cheap labour. From 1988 to 1994, there are 60,000 jobs lost each year. Of the total employment of different sectors, the portion of the manufacturing industries drops from 27.4% in 1990 to 17% in 1994. Many labour are released from the manufacturing industries. Though there are a great demand of labour in the service sector, many of the unemployed still cannot find their job because of job matching problem. They do not have the skills demanded in the job market, so there are both a lot of vacancies of jobs and a lot of unemployed labour. This kind of unemployment is called the structural unemployment which is a kind of involuntary unemployment. 3. China Policy Recently, the Chinese government tries to control the economy by macro policy such as implementing the contractionary monetary policy , inflation control policy. This leads to the slow down in the Chinese economy. The flow in of the Chinese capital to Hong Kong for speculation and investment reduce. This affects Hong Kong's economic growth simultaneously. In the past, the prosperous China-Hong Kong trade motivated the purchasing power in the service sector of Hong Kong. However, there are some changes in the investment environment in China recently. Firstly, it is the high inflation rate. For the past two years, the inflation rate was about 20%. Under the macro policy, the recent figure is 18.5% which is still quite high. Secondly, the government begins to raise the property tax. With these two factors, the profitability of investing in China decreases. Therefore, the purchasing power of Hong Kong's service sector is directly affected and so many labour are being dismissed. 4. High rent and high inflation rate 8 years continuous high rent and high inflation rate make the production cost of the Hong Kong enterprises, especially the labour cost , increase tremendously. On one hand, this encourages the enterprises move their labour-intensive industries to other place where the labour cost is cheaper. On the other hand, these enterprises try to dismiss labour or reduce the engagement of work force but change to more capital and technology dedication in order to reduce the production cost, increase standardization and productivity. Also, many enterprises could not stand the high rent and closed down, such as the Japanese department store, Mitsubishi. A lot of labour are then released out and become unemployed. 5. Non-intervention government policy The Hong Kong government lacks long term planning in the economy. They just try to adopt a non-intervention policy to the economic problems. In fact, in 1980s, the economic structure was changing. The manufacturing industries were declining. However, the government did nothing to help. Also, the government, for a long time, ignores the research and development of the high technology application. Thus Hong Kong's industrial technology cannot not catch up with the other three dragons. This explains why the productivity of the Hong Kong people is reducing recently. In 1990-1994, the productivity of Hong Kong labour is 3.8% but Taiwan and South Korea is 4.8% and Singapore is 4.5%. From this , we can see that the competitive power of the Hong Kong industries is weakening and high unemployment rate is inevitable. Government carries out high land policy which leads to a tremendous rise in the property price, so the rent of the shops and factories increases. The widespread implementation of the sewage treatment charges also increase the production cost. This is also a reason why the factories move to the north or close down. 6. Labour importation scheme Is it the main reason responsible for the rising unemployment rate in Hong Kong? a) The viewpoint of the government Government economist Tang Kwong-yiu said that the labour importation scheme is not the main responsible for the rising unemployment rate in Hong Kong. He attributed it to the faster growth in total labour supply relative to that of total employment. Students looking for summer jobs have aggravated the unemployment problem during the last three months. Also, the influx of illegal immigrants from China, the return of overseas Chinese and the hiring of expatriates also aggravated the job shortage. However, Mr. Patten proposed replacing the Labour Importation Scheme with a Supplementary Labour Scheme that would aim to cut the number of imported workers from 25,000 to 5,000 from January. b) The viewpoint of Democratic Party Though the labour importation scheme is not the main reason, it's implementation aggravates the unemployment problem. They believe that the change in the economic structure is the main reason. The problem became obvious in the mid 80s as many factories moved to the north. However, the government did not intervene. They still want a termination of the scheme so that the problem can at least be lessen at the mean time. c) The viewpoint of the labour union They believe that the this scheme should be stopped at once. They were disappointed by the Governor's failure to scrap the imported labour scheme for the new airport project. Construction workers would continue to see their jobs being taken by foreign laborers. Unionist Lee-Cheuk-yan said that in Hong Kong, we don't need any imported labour, not even 5,000. d) The viewpoint of the economists i) Mr. Lui from the Economic Development Research Center of HKUST A research has been done and the result is that the change in the economic structure contribute 60% for the rising unemployment rate. The labour importation scheme is just a minor factors and the influence to the labour market is not significant. The scheme is not just carried out in Hong Kong but also in USA and Germany. But we cannot see that imported labour has significant influence on the unemployment rate. This is because imported labour though take away the job of the local labour, at the same time they create job opportunities for them. If the company employees imported labour, the production cost can be reduced. This will keep the enterprises from moving to other places or even will attract more investors to Hong Kong. This will benefit the local labour. ii) Mr. Wong from the Management Department of Lingnam College He does not agree with the research of Mr. Lui. He believe that though the importation scheme is not the main reason , it is the root of the sin. The influence that bring to the economy is not insignificant. What's wrong with this scheme is that the government officials ignore the opinion of the public and make this scheme as a long term policy. Also, the imported labour are widely employed in all kinds of job, so the government has not considered the employment problem of the labour released out from the declining manufacturing industries. Despite the effect of the labour importation scheme, this economic argument has changed to a political issue for difficult political party to gain votes in the election and support. They all try to bargain with the government officials and propose bills to debate in the Legislative Council for a termination of the scheme. Donna In previous parts, we have explore the reasons of high unemployment rate recently, how we will begin the part that describe the situation of Hong Kong's unemployment. It includes description about the current unemployment situation and the changes on unemployment rate in the past 10 years, as well as the underemployment rate. Also, we will analyze the change in our labor force. In the second part, the unemployment rate in specific sectors will be analyzed so that it can help to study the structural change in the unemployment rate. Also, the reason of the structural change will be analyzed. A. Unemplopment, Underemployment and duration of unemployment 1. Unemployment in HK The recent unemployment figure in the 2nd quarter of 1995 is 3.2%. It is the highest figure in the past nine years. Many people as well as the government are announced of this significant increase in unemployment rate. It is concluded that unemployment in HK changed from short-term to long-term. The unemployment in 1989 is 1.2%, it gradually jumped to 3.2% in 1995, there is continuous increase year to year, but no decrease in this 7-year period. Before, problem of higher unemployment rate only extended from 2 to 3 years. This description of figures show how unemployment change from short to long term. Also, a graph is presented to show the changes of the unemployment rate in the past 10 years. 2. Underemployment in HK When a person who work for pay less than 35 hours in a month, he is said to be under-employed. In the 2nd quarter of 1995, the underemployment rate reached 2.1%. There are about 589,000 people who are under-employed. There, we will also present the figures in the past 10 years in a graphical form which can help to detect the degree of changes. 3. Duration of unemployment In 1994, there are 21,000 persons unemployed for more than 3 months , it contributed 26.2% of the total number of unemployed workers. The figure jumped to 31,000 in 1995, the contribution also increased to 31%. The data help to conclude that the duration of person who are unemployed extended very much. Before, they are temporarily unemployed, but they can soon find a new job within a short period. But now, they have to face a permanent problem of losing job. A set of data further illustrates the worse situation. The number of persons unemployed for more than 6 months in 5 recent quarter are presented in a table. B. Structural change in unemployment According to the statistical data, the nature of unemployment rate changed very much. Before, labour in manufacturing sector suffered most from economic slowdown and change in economic structure. However, the retail and service sector also face this problem. The unemployment problem extended from manufacturing sector to nearly all industry in HK. In this part, we are going to analyze the structural changes and explore the reasons leading to these changes, particularly in the manufacturing, retailing, service and construction industries. 1. Manufacturing sector In 1987, the manufacturing sector employed about 800,000 workers, but it gradually drop to 395,000. In the sector, there is an average decrease of 50,000 to 60,000 persons employed. The unemployment rate particular in the manufacturing industry from 43.9% in 1989 to 53.6% in 1994. There are several reasons explaining the increase. Firstly, owing to economic slowdown and structural change, the manufacturing industry is badly affected, many firms were closed. To save cost, the factories move their production line to mainland China to take advantage of cheap labour. It left many local workers unemployed. In addition, the workers in the manufacturing industry are of low skills, and they are incapable to find other job requiring special skills. Another reason is which is controversial is the importation of labour. Because their wages are lower, local workers are replaced by them because the manufacturers want to save cost. As a result, unemployment become more serious in this sector. 2. Retailing sector Before, local retailing industry prosper from 1980s due to economic growth and full confidence of investors to make investment in HK or in China. But in recent years, retail industry also suffer a slowdown. According to statistical data, in the past 3 years, the retail industry has an average 1.9% growth in sales volume. However, in April 1995, the figure decreased for 2% compared with the same period in last year. Also, unemployment rate in this sector increased. In first quarter in 1995, the total unemployment in retail industry contribute 30% of the economy's total, which it the second highest share, while the largest share is the manufacturing industry. 3. Service industry Service industry continuously grow in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many people are employed in this sector. However, it also suffered from the economic decline in recent years. Service sector includes the hotel service, transportation service, food and beverage, financial and asset management, etc. In the service sector, there are about 15,000 people unemployed in 1995, which represents an 21% increase compared with last year. It is higher then the total unemployment figure in the manufacturing industry. The reasons are basically the same in explaining high unemployment rate in both the retailing and service industry. Again, economic slowdown lead to reduced investment and consumption of goods and services. Also, economic decline in China also reduced investment projects in the Mainland, thus demanding less service. With high inflation rate, people are more sensitive on the way they spend money. Now, they spend less on buying goods and consuming service which are unnecessary. Therefore, large service corporation such as HK Telecom begin to cut the labour force to fit with the demand. More importantly, service industry also start to operate in Mainland China. The decline in the service industry cannot absorb the large labour force, especially workers who leave from the manufacturing industry. 4. Construction industry The unemployment rate in this sector is lower when compared with the manufacturing, service and the retailing industries. In 1995, the unemployment rate in construction decrease, but the underemployment rate increased. There are some large project that lead to greater labour supply in the construction sites. For example, the New Airport project demands many skilled construction labour. On the other hand, the demand of lower-skilled construction workers decreased because of the decline in the estate market. The large construction project are often technology oriented, and the machines and equipment is more difficult to manipulate. So, unemployed construction workers from the estate market cannot transfer to the large project because they are not qualified to operate the high-tech machines. Therefore, some vacancies are unfilled by the low-skill workers. Unemployment in this sector remains unsolved. C. Vacancies by different sectors in HK economy The following chart is given to illustrate the portion of vacancies by different sectors in 1995. It is arguable that the unemployment in HK is not so serious, because there are still many vacancies . However, the problem is that the unemployed workers cannot find the job that fit to them or they refuse to accept a lower wage. On the other hand, employers may not employ workers of lower skills. So, there is a situation that the demand and supply of labour skill is not matched. D. Relationship Between Unemployment Rate and Inflation Rate A general belief tells that there is a negative relationship between unemployment rate and inflation rate. Some economists claim that the contemporary economic situation in Hong Kong, high unemployment rate associated with a relatively low inflation rate, is a predictable result from periodical adjustment of built-in economic mechanism. Since 1987, the persisted high inflation rate had pushed the costs of production and operation up to a very high level. Therefore, people suffered from a reduction of purchasing power and negative wealth effect. Meanwhile, people tend to save more because of their fear on the instability arising from the transition of sovereignty in 1997. On the other hand, policy-makers tried to release the high inflation rate by means of imposing a higher interest rate. By the way, the general price level begins to fall after a continuous increase for eight years. Inflation rate & Unemployment rate in HK, 85-95 Year Unemployment rate Inflation rate 1985 3.20% 3.50% 1986 2.80% 3.00% 1987 1.70% 5.20% 1988 1.30% 7.50% 1989 1.20% 10.00% 1990 1.10% 9.80% 1991 1.70% 11.50% 1992 2.00% 9.20% 1993 2.00% 8.90% 1994 1.90% 8.20% 1995(qtr. 1) 2.80% 9.20% 1995(qtr. 4) (estimated) 3.20% 9.00% As explained in the previous sections, the high unemployment rate is caused by many factors, like change in economic structure, importation of foreign labor, which will eventually lead to a negative wealth effect and a reduction in general consumption level. The low inflation rate is traded off by a high unemployment rate. On the other hand, the serious unemployment rate demonstrates that our economy has moved from an economic boom period to a slump in which accompanied with a low inflation rate. 1. Empirical observation in Hong Kong & Phillips curve Just similar to what professor A.W. Phillips had practiced during 1950s, we have plotted empirical observed quarterly data on unemployment and the rate of change in (wages) inflation for the period between 1977 and 1995 in Hong Kong on a scattered diagram. In the meantime, we have tried to sketch a curve which seems to fit the data. By observation, the graph shows that the unemployment rate and inflation rate is negatively related as long as the curve is downward sloping. Unemployment rate & percentage change in CPI(A) in Hong Kong from 77-94 Year Month Unemployment rate Percentage change (monthly) in consumer price index(A) 1977 Sep 4.00% 0.35% 1978 Mar 3.00% 0.34% Sep 2.70% 0.41% 1979 Mar 2.30% 0.71% Sep 3.40% 1.20% 1980 Jan 3.20% 1.22% Sep 4.30% 0.61% 1981 Mar 4.10% 0.89% Oct 3.10% 2.48% 1982 Jan 3.30% 1.50% Apr 3.20% 1.20% Jul 4.00% 0.10% Oct 4.10% 1.20% 1983 Jan 5.10% -0.30% Apr 4.40% 1.70% Oct 4.10% 2.40% 1984 Jan 3.70% 0.80% Apr 4.10% 1.00% Jul 3.40% 0.10% Oct 3.80% -0.70% 1985 Jan 3.40% -0.30% Apr 3.30% 0.50% Jul 3.00% 0.10% Oct 3.30% -0.30% 1986 Jan

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