Nursing home labour shortage driving demand for imports

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While the Hong Kong government is trying to divert the demand for elderly care to the neighboring cities in the Greater Bay Area, it is also mulling steps to expand workforce in the elderly care sector to cope with the local demand.

Government figures project that by 2066, the number of people aged 65 or above will reach 2.59 million, while the total labour force will stand at 3.13 million.

“A rapidly aging population and a shrinking workforce are posing challenges to Hong Kong,” said Chief Secretary Mr Matthew Cheung in his blog post last Sunday.

In the face of the “silver tsunami”, he further suggests importing foreign labour to address manpower shortage in subsidised elderly care homes.

Foreign labour to close the gap

The vacancy rate of care workers at such homes stood at 18 percent in 2017, a government survey revealed.

The low salary and long working hours discourage Hong Kong locals from signing on for working in these homes.

“The salary for care workers at the subsidised homes has increased from $9,000 to $16,000,” says Mr Lam Ching-choi, chairman of the Elderly Commission.

The figure – which industry insiders say is far from reality – is still lower than the median monthly salary of $16,800 in Hong Kong in 2017.

The Labour Department has already rolled out the supplementary labour scheme for employers to import workers when they are unable to find suitable staff locally. 1,383 elderly care workers came in under the auspices of the programme 2016.

Local work not good enough

But Mr Cheng Ching-fat, secretary of the Community Care and Nursing Home Workers General Union, says importing foreign labour is not the way out.

“The government needs to try its best to incentivise the local people to join the industry first before it resorts to foreign labour,” he argues.

“There needs to be a clear structure for duties, pay raise and promotion to lure the local people,” he says, pointing out the government needs better human resources planning.

He cited the Social Welfare Department’s scheme to encourage young people to work in the elderly care sector, which he described as a failure.

According to the scheme, after a two-year health worker training course, the youth may pursue other career paths such as nursing.

“It’s a lie. Being a care worker and a nurse are totally different things. The salary remains low at around $12,000 even after they obtained the certificate,” Mr Cheng speaks of the bleak prospect of this career that deters the youth from getting onboard.

He also says the government fails to oversee the use of the $325 million allocated to the subsidized elderly care homes last year. On Monday, his union said over 20 workers claimed they have yet to get a pay raise.

Importing foreigners is a lose-lose

Mr Cheng says importing foreign labour is a lose-lose. It is not helping either the local or the foreign workers.

“There is no well-developed legislation to protect the foreign workers from being exploited, and it takes away the job opportunities for the local people,” he comments.

In June, nine care workers who arrived in Hong Kong from China under the supplementary labour scheme protested against their employer Wing Kwong Care Home for the Elderly.

They said they were working longer hours than agreed on the contract and had to return part of the salary to the employer under threat. They were also stripped of public holidays, among other unfair treatment.

“The foreign workers are provided with accommodation by their employers. They could end up being homeless once they leave,” says Mr Mung Siu Tat, chief executive of Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

Having said that, the role of foreign labour in the elderly care sector is vital, according to Mr Cheng.

“The private sector has hired some 3,000 foreign workers. Without them taking this low-paying job, the private sector cannot survive,” he says.

On Monday, local nursing home Haven of Hope revealed a study that the government could save up to $340 million in public healthcare if the elderly chooses to live out their lives in nursing homes rather than the public hospitals.

(Printer – R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7/F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road Central, HK)