He Peiqiong's days are packed to the brim with work, household chores and caring for her two children.
She has to be up by 7am to get her two daughters ready for school, then she rushes from the Kowloon district of Wong Tai Sin to Quarry Bay on Hong Kong Island for work. By 4.30pm, the insurance agent has to be back in Wong Tai Sin to pick up the younger one from kindergarten.
And from then, her second job begins - taking care of the two girls, aged five and 10.
Despite her exhaustion, He, 34, says she is now more contented than before her younger child enrolled in kindergarten three years ago.
"I am a lot happier being able to work," she says. "The person is prettier, you are in better spirits and you can meet new people."
Finances are also less tight with He being able to contribute around HK$5,000 (US$641) a month to the family of four's upkeep.
"This year, we even have a bit of money to go on a family holiday."
With an ageing population and low fertility rate, Hong Kong is facing a shrinking labour force. According to a recent government estimate, there will be an overall manpower shortfall of 169,700 by 2027.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung says the government is hoping that more people can join or re-enter the workforce to equip the city for this looming manpower crisis.
But with a work culture notorious for its long hours and lack of flexibility, critics say Hong Kong faces an uphill struggle to get groups such as women and retirees into the job market, with some even calling for a controversial relaxation of foreign labour controls.
What is holding them back?
Cheung says women, new migrants from mainland China, ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities and retirees who wish to re-enter the job market are all important human resources.
"To complement the local workforce, we cannot afford to have one less," he wrote in a recent blog post.
With women making up 54 per cent of the city's population, there have long been calls to support this group to enter or stay in the workforce.
But in 2016, the labour force participation rate for women was only 54.8 per cent, compared with 68.6 per cent for men. It was even lower for married or previously married women, at 48.6 per cent, compared with 70.3 per cent for those who have never married.
He had long wanted to return to the workforce after giving birth to her two children, but that was not an option until both entered school.
Recalling when she had to take care of both daughters round the clock, He says: "I couldn't sleep and felt depressed."
She says the children were quite naughty back then and the stress led to suicidal thoughts sometimes. When she found out she was pregnant with her second child, she was not happy.
With her husband, a food and beverage industry worker, only taking home a little over HK$10,000 a month back then, she could not even dream of childcare as private centres typically cost around HK$6,000 to HK$9,500 a month. She had to be careful with every cent.
Her husband was unable to help much either as he worked for more than 12 hours a day.
Neither did she know much about government-subsidised childcare centres; but in any case, getting a spot was unlikely with a persistent shortage of places in the city.
According to the Labour and Welfare Bureau, there are about 35,500 childcare centre places, 7,500 of them subsidised. But a University of Hong Kong team projected demand for childcare services of 69,478 by 2021.
While the situation has improved for He, she speaks of struggles in accommodating her elder daughter - who is dyslexic and suffers from heart problems requiring regular check-ups. There are also times when she is late in picking up the younger one.
"Once I only managed to reach my younger daughter's kindergarten at around 6.30pm due to a jam and the staff needed to leave," He says, adding she feels bad having to sometimes ask other parents to pick up her child when she is busy with work.
It would be better if she could get government help to take care of her younger child for a few more hours after classes end, she feels.
However, there is a persistent shortage of such services in the subsidised sector and they only cater to those aged six to 12.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said last year the government was thinking of using a more flexible voucher format to provide after-school care services to meet the needs of low-income families and was also studying extending these services for kindergarten children.
Wong Tai Sin district councillor Mabel Tam Mei-po, who helps many mothers like He, believes that having more childcare or after-school care services will encourage homemakers to enter the workforce.
She also says there are lots of women who cannot work as they have to take care of elderly family members.
Tam also thinks a HK$20 billion plan revealed in this year's budget to buy private properties for 158 welfare facilities, including 55 elderly activity centres and 28 childcare centres, will help release female manpower.
A Census and Statistics Department survey found some 66,600 people - comprising 50,100 female homemakers aged 30 to 59 and 16,500 early retirees aged 50 to 64 - were willing to work if offered "suitable" employment meeting their needs.
These included flexible working hours and reasonable salary. Most preferred part-time jobs.
But critics have long complained about Hong Kong's lack of work flexibility and part-time employment opportunities.
Tam calls for more flexibility and part-time opportunities to provide impetus for homemakers to work. "Even though they are mothers, they can still have ambitions," says Tam, a working mother of two.
The foreign worker dilemma
However, Michael Li Hon-shing, executive director of the Federation of Hong Kong Hotel Owners, says it is hard to hire staff in the hospitality industry despite the willingness to offer flexibility.
"For many four-star hotels or below, we have pushed back retirement, rehired retirees, and provided part-time opportunities such as for women," he says.
But Li notes that the prospect of working shifts is not attractive to many.
There were 88,135 job vacancies in Hong Kong in December, up 7.5 per cent year on year, including 9,949 in the civil service.
One sector with many vacancies was accommodation and food services, with 13,907.
Li estimates there are 5,000 to 6,000 vacancies just for the hotel industry.
"No matter how many we train, we cannot meet the demand," he laments.
As such, Li has called for more flexibility in importing labour. But he says it should not be done in large numbers, suggesting around 20 per cent of the number of vacancies.
No matter how many people we train, we cannot meet the demandMichael Li, of Federation of Hong Kong Hotel Owners
The Labour Department currently runs the supplementary labour scheme, which allows employers with genuine difficulties in finding suitable staff locally to import workers at technician level or below.
However, employers must give Hong Kong workers priority when filling vacancies and make active efforts to train up locals for the job. All applications for the scheme are considered on a case-by-case basis.
To test whether local employees are available, each accepted application has to go through a mandatory local recruitment period, and the arrangement of tailor-made retraining courses by the Employees Retraining Board if appropriate.
But labour sector lawmaker Jonathan Ho Kai-ming believes Hongkongers are deterred from entering industries such as food services and transport because of the low pay. He also questions if the government has done enough to help female and elderly to rejoin the workforce.
Li dismisses claims of low pay in the hotel industry, saying there are benefits and bonuses.
"Manpower shortages will affect service standards."
Li does not think automation is suitable for the industry, especially with face-to-face interaction preferred and many older travellers not receptive to technology.
The local manpower supply, equivalent to the labour force excluding foreign domestic workers, is projected to increase from 3.64 million in 2017 to reach a plateau in 2019 to 2022 at 3.67 million to 3.68 million, and then decrease to 3.57 million in 2027.
Cheung says that while the government will focus on cultivating local talent, it will also seriously explore the importation of foreign labour in industries with a severe shortage.
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