Wong Yat-hei takes up the skills and pay mismatch plaguing HK’s labour market
Lack of manpower has long been a problem for Hong Kong's food and beverage (F&B) industry. Notorious for its long hours and harsh working conditions, the sector has been having a hard time recruiting fresh blood, even as its ranks are slowly but inexorably turning grey.
The latest numbers from the Census and Statistics Department, published in June, show 80,170 job openings in Hong Kong, with F&B services accounting for 14,070 of those vacancies - the largest sectoral demand for manpower.
The dried up talent pipeline has prompted F&B employers to call for more imported labour. Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said the industry has a vacancy rate of about 15 per cent.
"Since the introduction of the minimum wage, many dishwashers have left to become security guards. We offered HK$45 an hour but nobody is willing to wash dishes. Importing labour will definitely benefit the industry," he says.
But Labour Party lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung opposes labour imports, saying young people are in need of jobs.
"Considering the high unemployment rate for youths aged 15 to 19 - 17.2 per cent - I don't see the reasoning behind importing labour," he says.
"Hong Kong is a free market. If there is lack of supply in talent, employers should raise pay to a level that can create demand. Importing labour will discourage employers from providing better pay and working conditions, further harming the already limited benefits of local workers," Cheung says.
He also called on the government and employers to provide a structured career path to lure talent.
"Right now, the F&B industry is having a hard time recruiting because young people don't see a future in it. It's up to employers to sweeten the deal to persuade people to join," he says.
Wong dismisses the idea that there is a shortage of jobs for young people. "The government and the private sector can design and plan a career path. It is up to young people to take them. I think some youngsters nowadays are less keen to work. If they want jobs, then they are available everywhere. But if they only want jobs which appeal to them, it will be difficult," he says. As an employer, Wong says he understands the Labour Party's concerns, but stresses that the shortage of talent in the industry is a glaring problem that needs to be addressed.
"Talk is easier than action. If we do not have sufficient manpower, economic development will be hindered. If we raise the salaries of frontline workers to a greater extent, it will then push up the salary costs of the whole economy," he says.
Cheung acknowledges the pressures faced by employers from rising costs, especially rents, and called on the government to introduce taxes to stop landlords keeping properties vacant for extended periods.
"The rents for shops and restaurants in Hong Kong are insane. Wealthy landlords would rather keep properties vacant than rent them at a lower price. They should pay tax for that, so that rents can be brought down to an affordable level, giving employers the room to provide better benefits for workers," he says.
Responding to the Labour Party's claim that bosses will use labour importation as a way to suppress pay and benefits, Wong says businesses mainly want to ease the burden of recruiting hard-to-get manpower.
"The industry is willing to pay the same wages and benefits to foreign labour as to locals. I think there should be a quota for the amount of labour brought in. In fact, we can set regulations to ensure foreign labour is not competing with the local population," he says.
Tang Wai-ling, chief supervisor at Yan Oi Tong training centre, which offers various training courses in F&B, says employers are keen to offer jobs to their graduates.
"Bosses often come to me to inquire about getting our graduates to help them. But unfortunately, not all of our graduates are willing to stay in the industry, putting even more pressure on the already tight manpower supply," she says.
Pay in the industry has gone up considerably in the past few years, but still fails to attract talent.
"Employers are paying up to HK$12,000 to HK$13,000 a month for a dishwasher. Some try to sweeten the deal with lunch breaks and shorter working hours, but people still refuse to join," says Tang.
According to Tang, employers would prefer to employ local people, but owing to the lack of interest, they see importing labour as a last resort.