Panel on Manpower (Papers) 23 Mar 99

(English translation prepared
by the Legislative Council Secretariat
for Members' reference only)

"Surviving in adversity"

Findings of a survey of the working elderly in Sham Shui Po conducted by the Society for Community Organization

According to the Government's Household Survey for the third quarter of 1998, there were over 120 000 working elderly aged 60 or above, accounting for 12.9% of the population of such an age group, which does not include the hidden unemployed (meaning those who intended to work, but failed to find jobs within 30 days due to various reasons). Despite a rising number in the elderly population, the employment rate has been dropping over the past 8 years from 21.4% in 1991 to 12.9% in 1998, a phenomenon similar to that in many industrialized countries in the West. There are a number of complicated reasons for the low employment rate among the elderly. They are mostly related to the supply and demand in the labour market, terms of employment, retirement benefits, social welfare system and the culture of society. Nevertheless, even if some elderly people continue to work out of economic necessity or desire, the type of jobs that they can do will become lower and lower in rank and their wages will dwindle as they get older. Moreover, they wield little bargaining power in the face of their employers. As the number of the elderly people is small, their voice is rarely heard in the community, which in turn has worsened their situation.

In view of the above, the Society for Community Organization ("the Society") carried out a large scale survey between November 1998 and January 1999 of the working elderly in Sham Shui Po to look into the employment situation among the elderly in Hong Kong, in which 143 elderly persons were interviewed. The findings of the survey are summarized as follows:

The median wage of the working elderly ranges between $5,000 and $6,000, much lower than the median wage of $10,000 among the working population in Hong Kong. A substantial portion of their meager wages is eroded by many essential expenses, such as rent, transport and child-supporting and so on. The survey found that half of their income went to accommodation, with the rent for a bedspace or a room costing an average of $1,715.6 a month. The respondents to the survey have to support 2.2 children on average, costing $1,672.2 each month on average. They are forced to keep silent despite being exploited by their employers for fear of losing their jobs.

The survey found that more and more elderly took up non-skilled odd jobs as they became older, such as cleaners in restaurants, or were self-employed as hawkers, scavengers and scrap collectors. Some of the elderly people were no longer employed to take up skilled jobs in factories or construction sites due to declining health. As they get older, their jobs and income become extremely unstable. 40.3% of the respondents were found to be doing odd jobs or self-employed, 57.9% of them had a length of service of less than 6 years in their current jobs.

The survey also found that the respondents worked 9.6 hours a day on average with some of them averaging 12 hours a day, much higher than the average of 9 hours for people engaged in the service industries as a whole. What is more, 20% of the respondents were found to work 7 days a week, which pointed to the fact that their employers were breaking labour laws which provide that all employees are entitled to one day off for every 7 days if they have worked for the same employer for a continuous period of 4 weeks with not less than 18 hours a week.

Under labour laws, all employees are entitled to public holidays, paid annual leave and paid sick leave. However, the survey found that between 40% and 60% of the respondents did not enjoy these benefits. This again indicates non-compliance with labour laws by many employers as well as insufficient supervision on the part of the Labour Department.

According to the survey, 85.5% of the respondents received no protection to which they were entitled under labour laws. Even the Mandatory Provident Fund, which will be implemented in 2000, will only benefit the younger generations. Elderly people will have to make do with their meager wages, or live on Comprehensive Social Security Assistance ("CSSA") Scheme payment or old age allowance.

However, 50.8% of the respondents were reluctant to receive CSSA payment out of fear of being stigmatized as a burden on the community.

The change in the labour market after the Asian financial turmoil has also made elderly people less competitive in the job market.

The Society is of the view that the lack of a comprehensive retirement scheme has resulted in many elderly people in Hong Kong having to work for meager wages to support themselves, or depend on CSSA payment or old age allowance. The Society therefore suggests the following measures to improve the life of the working elderly:

for the long term:

  1. a comprehensive retirement scheme should be implemented immediately with contributions from employees, employers and the Government, in order that elderly people can lead a decent life for the rest of their twilight years;

  2. elderly people's right to employment should be respected and protected through enhancing civic education and the enactment of legislation against age discrimination.
for the short term:
  1. the publicity of the labour laws should be stepped up to enhance the awareness among elderly people of their rights under the labour laws;

  2. the Labour Department should step up prosecution against unscrupulous employers to protect elderly workers from being exploited;

  3. the construction of housing for the elderly should be expedited so as to help solve their accommodation difficulties;

  4. the procedure for handling complaints should be streamlined to improve efficiency and minimize the loss on the part of the complainants;

  5. employees' right to collective bargaining on a trade basis should be established to ensure their right to reasonable entitlements;

  6. the feasibility of imposing maximum work hours and minimum wages should be examined;

  7. current labour laws should be reviewed so that the working elderly employed on contract or contract out basis are entitled to long service payment;

  8. the age requirement for long service payment should be lowered from 65 to 60; and

  9. consideration should be given to the introduction of an allowance for the working elderly or giving tax concessions to their employers, in order to improve employment opportunities for the elderly.