In­creas­ing the la­bor force and im­prov­ing the work­place en­vi­ron­ment

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT HK - Nerice Gi­etel

On Nov 17 at the APEC CEO Sum­mit 2018 in Pa­pua New Guinea, Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Car­rie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told the press that Hong Kong faces the dual prob­lem of a grow­ing ag­ing pop­u­la­tion and in­suf­fi­cient la­bor. In this con­text, she said, women can be a so­lu­tion to Hong Kong’s la­bor short­age and that more fe­males should join the work­force. Cur­rently the fe­male la­bor force par­tic­i­pa­tion rate is merely 51 per­cent. To sup­port this, she said Hong Kong would need to roll out new mea­sures to sup­port work­ing women in­clud­ing more fam­i­lyfriendly poli­cies, bet­ter child care prac­tices and re­lated ini­tia­tives.

One such mea­sure al­ready taken by the gov­ern­ment was the de­ci­sion to ex­tend ma­ter­nity leave from 10 to 14 weeks. This was great news in­deed and some­thing worth cel­e­brat­ing by all. By do­ing this Hong Kong will fi­nally meet the In­ter­na­tional La­bor Or­ga­ni­za­tion rec­om­men­da­tion of at least 14 weeks of ma­ter­nity leave. Fur­ther­more, pa­ter­nity leave has been ex­tended from three to five days. As noted by the CE, Hong Kong has one of the low­est fer­til­ity rates in the world and a rapidly ag­ing pop­u­la­tion, and these changes can, in the long run, play a role in en­sur­ing that Hong Kong is pro­vided with a health­ier, hap­pier work­force.

How­ever, that an­nounce­ment was not met with uni­ver­sal ap­proval. Op­po­nents, es­pe­cially Fed­er­a­tion of Hong Kong In­dus­tries Chair­man Jimmy Kwok, has gone so far as to sug­gest that re­spon­si­ble work­ers may not want 14 weeks of ma­ter­nity leave. The first con­cern here is that the costs to be shoul­dered by the em­ployer or tax­payer are too high. How­ever, I would ar­gue that this is an area where the gov­ern­ment can in­vest with the ex­pec­ta­tion of good re­turns by sub­si­diz­ing more ex­tended leave for both par­ents, thereby en­cour­ag­ing more young moth­ers to re­turn, or re­main in the work­place, after giv­ing birth. Just imag­ine the in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity this will con­trib­ute to our to­tal econ­omy.

Re­turn­ing to the idea of a squeezed la­bor mar­ket, though, it is clear that ex­tended ma­ter­nity leave is only one “pol­icy lever”. We clearly need to look at the big­ger pic­ture. If the la­bor mar­ket is so squeezed, why for ex­am­ple, is sys­tem­atic dis­crim­i­na­tion against young peo­ple and women with chil­dren such a fea­ture of em­ploy­ment in Hong Kong? As an Equal Op­por­tu­ni­ties Com­mis­sion funded study iden­ti­fied:“Both em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees agree that it is un­der­stand­able not to hire moth­ers car­ing for young chil­dren, com­pared with peo­ple with other types of fam­ily car­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.” The au­thor is an ex­ec­u­tive coach who spe­cial­izes in work­ing with women to help get them back into work

On the other hand, the re­port found that “In the eval­u­a­tion of ap­pli­cants’ com­mit­ment and pro­mo­tion po­ten­tials, male and fe­male with­out car­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties con­sis­tently re­ceive lower scores than the other four cat­e­gories”. One ex­pla­na­tion, the com­mis­sion con­cluded, is that the ap­pli­cants “with­out car­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties re­ported the need for leave to de­velop their hob­bies, which is not wel­comed in the job mar­ket of Hong Kong”. In other words, as far as care com­mit­ments go, you’re damned if you have them, and damned if you don’t.

While flimsy ex­cuses are made for this, it seems to ig­nore the huge con­tri­bu­tions that such peo­ple could make to the work­force. Al­though it is very easy to mock mil­len­ni­als for their work habits and con­sump­tion pref­er­ences (and in­deed, to ac­tively dis­crim­i­nate against them), we need to ac­knowl­edge that they will make up the en­tire la­bor force of the next decades.

Many stud­ies of the fu­ture of work and em­ploy­ment have been made, with a strong fo­cus on the im­pact of au­to­ma­tion and mech­a­niza­tion. How­ever, changes in the na­ture of em­ploy­ment will also be crit­i­cal. The days of work­ing 40 hours a week in one job, for one em­ployer, for life, are prob­a­bly num­bered. Flex­i­ble em­ploy­ers will be able to take ad­van­tage of this to bet­ter fill their skill gaps, while flex­i­ble em­ploy­ees will be able to max­i­mize their po­ten­tial in­come.

There is also a chal­lenge to the ar­chaic equa­tion of phys­i­cal pres­ence to pro­duc­tiv­ity and per­for­mance — i.e. pres­ence equals pro­duc­tiv­ity equals money. For a lot of or­ga­ni­za­tions this is sim­ply not the case. Just be­cause a desk is oc­cu­pied for 40 to 60 hours a week does not mean that you are get­ting the most out of them. In fact, ex­per­i­ments with four-day work­ing weeks are show­ing that re­duced work­ing hours lead to higher pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Fi­nally, the eco­nomic case for in­vest­ment in early years has un­equiv­o­cally been shown in stud­ies by No­bel lau­re­ate econ­o­mist James Heck­man that pol­i­cy­mak­ers get more for their money by start­ing at birth. What is good for par­ents, is good for chil­dren; this leads to healthy and pro­duc­tive work­ers in the fu­ture. This is good not only for the em­ployer, but also for the tax­payer.

To re­turn to Jimmy Kwok’s claim about “re­spon­si­ble” em­ploy­ees not tak­ing their full ma­ter­nity leave; one can eas­ily ar­gue the op­po­site. That hav­ing chil­dren, giv­ing them the best pos­si­ble start in life, and re­turn­ing to the work­force is the ul­ti­mate in re­spon­si­ble be­hav­ior for ci­ti­zens and work­ers. Ar­gu­ing other­wise is sim­ply short­ter­mism.

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