THE GOVERNMENT has suggested encouraging "young-olds" aged between 65 and 74 to return to the job market, with Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung saying the government will take the initiative to implement policies to this end. He mentioned that Hong Kong's workforce participation rate among elderly people has increased significantly in the past decade, and the rise was particularly prominent in the 65-74 age group. However, the participation rate was still much lower than that in other Asian countries, such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Amid the challenges of population ageing, encouraging prolonged employment or re-employment of the elderly is certainly an important direction in unleashing the potential of the local working population and promoting "active ageing". But encouraging elderly employment cannot be achieved by merely shouting slogans. The government must formulate appropriate policies that can protect the rights of the "young-old" workforce and avoid the exploitation of elderly employees who lack bargaining power by unscrupulous employers.
According to the government's by-census results in 2016, there were about 1.16 million senior citizens aged 65 or above in Hong Kong, marking an increase of more than 0.31 million from 2006. The proportion of senior citizens in the population rose from 12.4% in 2006 to 15.9% in 2016. The Census and Statistics Department estimated that by 2036 one in every three Hong Kong people would be an elderly person. Last year Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong also predicted that Hong Kong would face a "silver tsunami" in the coming decade. The ageing of our population is both a challenge and an opportunity.
The education level of the new generation of old adults is notably higher than that in the past. In 2006, only one in four elderly people had received secondary school education or above. But the ratio had increased to nearly 40% by 2016. If a certain degree of flexibility can be allowed in the workplace arrangement for employees who have reached the conventional retirement age, such aged workers in good health condition and of higher education level will then be able to continue to contribute to society. However, the government must pay attention to several matters in dealing with the issue of prolonged work life.
First of all, the authorities must safeguard the "young-olds" against wilful exploitation by unscrupulous employers as "second-class workforce". At present, there are 478,000 poor elderly people in Hong Kong. The figure still stands at 340,000 after policy interventions of recurrent cash benefits and the elderly poverty rate is as high as 31.6%. The government must formulate appropriate policies to protect their labour rights, in particular the rights of low-skilled aged workers who have relatively low bargaining power. If not, they will be turned into easy targets of exploitation who cannot but be trampled upon and "bottle up their feelings" for the sake of scraping a meagre living. In the face of population ageing, it is an urgent task to deal with the problem of age discrimination in employment. However, at this moment there are still no regulations against age discrimination in the workplace. Hong Kong government must initiate discussions as early as possible to enact legislation prohibiting age discrimination, so as to remove obstacles in the way of elderly employment.
Furthermore, given the lack of universal retirement protection in Hong Kong, many grassroots elderly people have to work in their later years to make ends meet. This has shown that whether the elderly people continue to work or not is somehow related to retirement protection. For example, now the Mandatory Provident Fund scheme has made it compulsory for employers and employees to make contributions up to the age of 65. After that, they can decide separately whether to continue their respective contributions or not. If it is stipulated that the employer is also obliged to continue the contribution after an employee aged 65 or above has decided to keep on contributing, those elderly workers can at least enjoy an additional safeguard.
The government has a kind intention behind its determination to encourage elderly employment as a way of finding "new force" to the working population. Nevertheless, it must formulate appropriate supporting policies as early as possible. It must come up with an "elderly friendly" employment policy so that older adults who still have the intention and the energy to contribute to society can fulfil their aspiration.