Ageing – a Hong Kong dilemma
Around the world, governments are paying more attention to ageing. Not before time. After all, except for a tragic few, most of us will become ‘old’. Some will become much older. What society regarded as old, even 50 years ago, is no longer old. Laws and customs have not changed, however. Each country faces its own challenges. Hong Kong is no different. This article adapted from HK01 explains some of the challenges.
A spate of local incidents involving elderly drivers or hawkers has brought elderly employment to the attention of the community. Although work for those in their 80s and 90s is not common, it is certainly the trend to delay retirement for a few years amidst the global trend of an ageing population.
Various governments are already formulating relevant policies, including the National People's Congress and the French Senate, which has passed an amendment to raise the statutory retirement age from 62 to 64. However, Hong Kong is not considered to be employment-friendly for the elderly at present and should take measures to catch up.
At present, many Hong Kong people retire at the age of 60 to 65, and the Government's Senior Citizen Card and elderly benefits eligibility thresholds are set at 65. However, as the population ages and health conditions permit, it is likely that more and more older people will want to work for a few more years. The question is whether employers are willing to hire them. We need legislation against age discrimination.
Companies may not be willing to hire new elderly people if they are not willing to continue to employ their existing staff. The Labour Department has long since introduced the Employment Programme for the middle-aged, which provides on-the-job training subsidies to employers who employ unemployed job seekers aged 40 or above. This already reflects, to some extent, that the market may not be friendly to older job seekers. Companies may prefer to hire younger candidates to reduce the cost of salaries, medical insurance, and the like. Often, employers do not mention an age limit in job advertisements, but it becomes one of the indicators in the screening process.
In 2016, the Equal Opportunities Commission published a study on Exploratory Study on Age Discrimination in Employment. It found that over one-third of working people had experienced age discrimination. Three-quarters agreed that an age discrimination law would help improve the problem. It has since conducted an internal study on a possible legal framework to prohibit age discrimination in employment. In May 2019, the Legislative Council passed a motion offering all-round support for the elderly, the first principle of which called for "legislating against age discrimination in the workplace". In its concluding observations on Hong Kong's fourth report to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Council also reiterated its concern about the lack of explicit legislation in Hong Kong.
A recent Secretary for Labour and Welfare put forward the expression “middle-aged people in their 60s". Regardless of the controversy, more and more people will be working in their 60s. The government must legislate against age discrimination in the workplace and prohibit employers from refusing to hire or promote their employees based on age and unrelated to their ability to do the job. The Secretary for Labour and Welfare said that if it were not for the employment of the elderly, Hong Kong's labour force would have started to decline.
Of course, this does not mean that companies must employ older workers. The workforce itself must also keep up with the demands of the times. The Census and Statistics Department projects that by 2047, about 40% of our population will be aged 60 or above. Population ageing will continue until at least 2057, after which we can expect to see a gradual decline in the proportion of elderly people. It follows that most of the current workforce aged 26 or above should consider the issue of future employment in old age and upgrade their knowledge and skills.
There are already several policy initiatives in place to support the middle-aged workforce, including the Continuing Education Fund (CEF), which is open to every adult. Then there are the courses offered by the Employees Retraining Board (ERB). There is also an on-the-job training subsidy for employers. However, there are various restrictions on all these existing practices. For example, the CEF can only be received once; ERB courses are only open to those who do not have a post-secondary degree. On average, there are only a few hundred on-the-job training allowance cases per year under the Employment Programme for the middle-aged. This is a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged workers.
Legislative Councillor Peter Koon suggested last year that the Hong Kong government should follow Singapore's example of "providing every citizen aged 25 or above with a regular, non-time-limited, cumulative subsidy to cover the cost of approved skills-related courses". It should also "provide employers with a 50% to 95% subsidy on the cost of employer-sponsored training courses". This is a practice that deserves serious review by officials.
At the same time, there is no reason to set too many other thresholds to keep out potential trainees. The Employees Retraining Board, and other publicly funded social organisations, offer relevant courses. Some taxi drivers are still working beyond the age of 65 and have not thought about when to retire.
Whether age discrimination is prohibited, or continuing education is encouraged, the policy is targeted at older workers who are relatively less competitive. They often must stay in the workforce due to financial constraints, and the government should therefore consider providing more help. According to a 2016 survey, more working people believe that the government's provision of a grant and transport subsidy can provide them with an incentive to re-enter the workforce after retirement.
On the other hand, if the health condition and ability level of the elderly citizens meet the requirements of their occupation, they can continue to work for a few more years to avoid depleting their labour force. This also alleviates the burden to public finance brought about by the ageing population. In view of the existing retirement protection and taxation systems in Hong Kong, the Administration may wish to provide eligible employees aged 60 or above with a non-voluntary contribution to the Mandatory Provident Fund or provide additional tax allowances to increase the incentive for older people to continue to work.
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