HONG KONG - Hong Kong is mulling over a proactive "we seek you" policy to attract foreign and mainland talents - a shift from its erstwhile laissez-faire approach.
And with sectors such as construction and retail saying they are in dire need of workers, the city could also ease the "flexibility" of its schemes that now strictly control the importation of foreign workers.
These are a key prong of an overarching population strategy launched yesterday for public consultation, as Chief Secretary Carrie Lam warned of the "dire consequences" of the city's low birth rate, greying population and shrinking workforce.
Other areas up for discussion include how couples could be encouraged to have more children, through incentives such as baby bonuses or longer parental leave. Public views are also being sought on how to get more women and the elderly to join the workforce. These are laid out in a report drawn up by a government-appointed commission to deliberate the city's population policy.
But what is not up for negotiation is a "population cap" - a call made by some who argue that the current population size of 7.15 million is more than enough, given the city's limited resources.
"If you say that seven million is enough, and we should cap it, that's unwise," Ms Lam told a press conference.
In her presentation, she showed that Hong Kong's average annual real gross domestic product growth in the past two decades was 4 per cent. Of this, 1 per cent was due to labour force growth; 3 per cent, productivity. "If the labour force shrinks, we will not achieve a 4 per cent growth rate unless productivity rises substantially," she said. Given current trends, the workforce will start contracting in five years, when it peaks at 3.71 million.
Ms Lam did not say what Hong Kong's optimal population growth rate or eventual size could be.
That the commission will have its work cut out to forge consensus over the next four months was clear from the onset.
The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions yesterday began a protest, saying any liberalisation of rules to bring in foreign workers is "short-term" and will hurt the interests of local workers.
While acknowledging that the subject of labour importation is a sensitive one, Ms Lam pointed out Hong Kong's severe shortage, with private-sector vacancies standing at 77,900 as of June.
Yet, the city imports just 2,415 workers at technician level and below, under a scheme that mandates priority for local workers.
Under this scheme, foreign workers brought in have to be given at least the median salary and the same benefits as their local peers.
In contrast, Singapore, which has a more flexible policy, has 884,900 such workers, Ms Lam said.
"It's a big difference from Singapore. So we have room... to improve the flexibility of the current schemes," she added.
She pledged that "any changes will consider the interests of local workers", without giving details.
Concurrently, the city should consider burnishing its lure for "global talent" to settle down and start families in Hong Kong, said Secretary for Security Lai Tung Kwok.
While rules for professionals entering Hong Kong are more lax, the profile of this group is largely determined by companies doing the hiring. There were 86,781 foreign and mainland professionals in Hong Kong last year.
Said the commission in its report: "Our talent admission schemes could be better coordinated with our broader economic development strategy by targeting specific groups of talented people who could facilitate Hong Kong's development in key industries." These include transport, innovative technology, manufacturing and professional services.
The commission pointed out Singapore's concerted efforts on this front, including the existence of a "strategic and skills-in-demand list" that gives those with such qualifications more consideration.
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