(Reprinted from HKCER Letters, Vol.32, May 1995)
Recent Labor Market Conditions in Hong Kong
Following years of labor shortage, Hong Kong's labor market has begun to show signs of slack in recent months. The (unadjusted) unemployment rate reached 2.9 percent in the second quarter of 1995--its highest level since 1987. While the rise in unemployment has caught attention from the public, perhaps an equally significant change in labor market conditions has received much less notice. In the period 1987-1992, the size of the labor force grew from 2.73 million to 2.79 million, a mere increase of 60,000 persons over five years. In fact, labor force growth was negative in three out of those five years. Labor supply then took an unexpected jump. In the year 1993 alone, 80,000 more people were added to the workforce. Strong labor force growth continued in 1994, with an increase of another 100,000 individuals. Understanding the factors behind such large increases in labor supply would be one key to understanding the current unemployment situation.
Another key to the unemployment problem is labor demand. Cyclical fluctuations in general business conditions can lead to a reduction in aggregate labor demand and can cause unemployment. Changes in the structure of the economy will lead to temporary mismatches between workers and jobs, which can also cause unemployment. In the past, rapid structural transformation has not produced rising unemployment in Hong Kong, as cutbacks in manufacturing jobs were more than compensated by the strong growth of the economy. However, while the decline in manufacturing industries continues, Hong Kong has experienced a slowdown in the growth of services jobs in the last few months as a result of reduced consumer spending. Such changes in demand conditions will have a negative impact on the labor market.
By bringing together the developments on the supply side and on the demand side of the market, this article will offer a framework for understanding long-term trends in manpower utilization as well as short term changes in the employment situation. It will also focus on evaluating various explanations for the recent increase in unemployment.
One can discern three distinct periods of labor force growth since 1976. (1) In the period 1976-1981, the labor force grew rapidly at a rate of 5.6 percent per annum, mainly due to the influx of refugees from China. (2) In 1980 the government abolished the "touch base" policy. Since then, legal and illegal immigration continued, but at a much reduced rate. The growth of the labor force decelerated as a result. Emigration due to political uncertainty further depleted the stock of working population. From 1981 to 1992, the size of the labor force increased only at a rate of 1.1 percent a year. In the later part of this period, Hong Kong experienced a labor shortage in its fast expanding services sector. (3) The labor market showed signs of easing in 1993 and 1994, when the labor force resumed to a more vigorous annual growth rate of 3.2 percent. In the second quarter of 1995, the growth of the labor force over the preceding year was 4.1 percent, the largest increase since 1982.
Decomposition of Labor Supply Growth
To better understand the recent revival in the growth of the labor force, a useful approach is to decompose labor force growth into two components: changes in population base and changes in labor participation. One can ask two hypothetical questions: (a) Suppose the labor force participation rate for each age group had remained unchanged, how would changes in the size and structure of the population have affected labor supply? (b) Suppose the size of the population aged 15 or above had remained unchanged, how would changes in labor force participation rates have affected labor supply?
Table 1 presents the result of such an exercise for 1992-1994. It reveals several important features behind the growth of the labor force during the past two years:
Changes in population have accounted for the bulk of the increase in labor supply (+215,700 persons). Changes in labor force participation have actually contributed negatively to labor force growth (-36,300 persons), so that the net growth in the labor force was 179,500.
Although the overall size of the population had increased, population in the 15-19 age group had fallen. As this cohort advances in age, the population in older age groups will decrease in the future. Thus, barring increased immigration, it is expected that the population base from which the labor force is drawn will eventually shrink. The reduction in the population of young people in this period is primarily the result of long-term decline in fertility. The total fertility rate (i.e., the number of live births per thousand women during their lifetime) in Hong Kong fell dramatically from 3,460 in 1971 to 1,228 in 1993. This fertility rate is among the lowest in the world.
Labor force participation for men had fallen. The reduction in labor force participation rates for men had subtracted 37,500 people from the labor force. This drop may be interpreted as the result of rising affluence that has increased the demand for leisure. The drop is particularly pronounced among people over 60 years of age as these people are retiring earlier.
Overall female labor force participation remained relatively stable, but there are significant variations across different age groups. As women are marrying at a later age and are having fewer children, they are more inclined to stay in the labor force. Rising education and wages for women also encourage them to work. As a result, labor force participation for prime age women rose sharply. This, however, is not true for women in other age groups.
Labor force participation rates for the 15-19 and the 20-29 age groups fell for both sexes, primarily because young people are acquiring more schooling before they enter the labor market. One should bear in mind, however, that the quality of labor matters as much as the quantity. While rising education tends to reduce the quantity of labor, they also help produce a more skilled work force.
Decomposition of Labor Force Growth, 1992-1994
Age due to population due to participation Total Group Male Female
15-19 -2,200 -900 -9,100 -5,300 -17,600 20-29 12,300 18,200 -5,800 -3,300 21,300 30-39 52,800 32,800 -1,200 18,300 102,700 40-49 57,600 35,800 1,200 -2,300 92,200 50-59 9,800 -1,700 -3,700 2,900 7,300 60+ 1,800 -400 -18,800 -9,100 -26,500
Total 132,000 83,700 -37,500 1,200 179,500
Note: Figures are based on author's calculation using data from the General Household Survey.
The above analysis suggests that the strong growth of the labor force in the past two years may not be the beginning of a sustained period of growth. Except for women aged between 25 and 40 years, rising schooling and rising income has caused labor force participation to drop. The trend is not expected to be reversed in the near future. Had there been no change in the structure and size of the population, changes in labor force participation rates would have reduced the labor supply by 36,300 persons between 1992 and 1994. Nevertheless labor supply actually rose by 179,500 persons in this period, primarily because of a sudden surge in population.
Since mortality and fertility are very stable over short intervals of time, and since fertility has followed a long trend of decline, the bulk of the growth in labor force was due to a net migration of people into the territory. In-migration and out-migration are very sensitive to changes in the economic and political environment, especially since a lot of Hong Kong people already possess foreign passports or are living abroad. As 1997 draws closer and closer, migration decisions are particularly hard to predict. This means that the strong growth of the labor force witnessed in the past two years need not be a persistent feature of the economy.
Pattern of Population Flow
Since the government does not have a complete record of immigration, emigration, and return migration, the contribution of population movement to population growth cannot be ascertained. It is possible, however, to estimate the extent of net in-migration using published population and mortality figures.
Table 2 shows that the increase in the population aged 15 or above was much higher during 1992-1994 than during 1990-1992. The natural increases in population were quite similar across the two periods. Thus, the main reason for the recent rapid growth in population was the larger net inflow of population. For the period 1990-1992, the estimated net in-migration was 26,400; for 1992-1994 the figure was almost six times as large.
Table 2 Estimate of Net Migration
Period 1990-1992 1992-1994
(1) Change in population aged 15 of abovea 139,900 264,800 (2) Deaths (aged 15 or above)a -56,200 -60,000 (3) Additions to stock due to agingb 169,700 170,400 (4) Natural increase [(2) + (3)] 113,500 110,400
(5) Estimated net inflow of population [(1) - (4)] 26,400 154,400
a Figures are derived from Annual Digest of Statistics 1994.
b This is estimated by asssuming that forty percent of those in the 10-14 age group are of age 13 or 14. In two years, they will be part of the population aged 15 or above.
It should be pointed out that the various labor importation schemes implemented since 1989 only make up a small part of the net inflow of population. Table 3 attempts to estimate the composition of population flow from various sources. Rows 6 and 7 show that the number of foreign workers who entered Hong Kong during 1992-1994 under the General Importation of Labour Scheme and the Special Scheme for Airport and Related Projects was 9,900--about 6.4 percent of the net inflow of population aged 15 or above. In contrast, 39,400 legal Chinese immigrants and 40,200 domestic helpers entered Hong Kong in the same period.
The last row of Table 3 includes visitors, British nationals who came to work in Hong Kong and (perhaps most importantly) the balance between return migrants and emigrants. From 1990 to 1992, more people emigrated from Hong Kong than people who returned. As a result there was a net loss of population (aged 15 or above) of 65,500. The situation was reversed in 1992-1994, when return migrants outnumbered emigrants by 51,200. This difference in the balance between return migration and emigration accounts for almost the entire difference in net population inflow across the two periods.
This analysis suggests that recent fluctuations in the size of the population (and hence labor supply) were mainly driven by the increasing mobility of the local population. As Hong Kong people gain residence rights in other countries, they are increasingly likely to move in and out of the territory for economic and political reasons. In the long run this will improve Hong Kong's standing as an international city. In the short run this will make the labor supply more volatile and unpredictable.
Pattern of Migration Flows
Period 1990-1992 1992-1994
(1) Estimated net in-migration (aged 15 or above)a 26,400 154,400 (2) Legal Chinese immigrants (excluding children)b 30,200 39,400 (3) Net change in Vietnamese migrantsb -10,000 -22,300 (4) Entry of foreign professional workers 2,500 4,900 (5) Net change in foreign domestic helpersb 30,800 40,200 (6) Imported workers for airport projectsb 1,200 3,900 (7) Imported skilled worker and experienced operativesd 3,000 6,000
(8) Balance -41,300 82,300
a See Table 2.
b Figures are derived from various issued of the Hong Kong annual reports. c Figures are estimated by the change in total number of visas issued to such workers. d In June 1995, there were 19,000 workers staying in Hong Kong under the General Importation of Labour Scheme. Thus 6,000 (19,000-13,000) are estimated to have entered Hong Kong during 1992-1994 under the Scheme.
Changes in the Composition of the Labor Force
As the economy develops into a world financial center and a gateway to the Chinese market, more and more highly trained foreign workers have come to Hong Kong. During the last two years the number of foreign professionals who were admitted into Hong Kong almost doubled compared to 1990-1992. Moreover, since emigrants from Hong Kong tend to be highly educated, it is expected that the majority of the return immigrants are well educated. While the importation of less skilled workers has dominated the headlines, their quantity was much lower compared to the entry (or re-entry) of highly skilled workers. Contrary to popular beliefs, the recent inflow of population has actually contributed to an increase in the relative supply of skilled labor rather than that of unskilled labor.
One can observe a continuous improvement in the level of education of the workforce. More importantly, the rise in education attainment has accelerated during the recent past. From the first quarter (Q1) of 1991 to 1993 Q1, the share of workers with less than secondary education fell by 3.2 percentage points, and the share of workers with more than secondary education rose by 1.6 percentage points. From 1993 Q1 to 1995 Q1, in contrast, the proportion of workers with less than secondary education fell by 4.6 percentage points, and the proportion of tertiary-educated workers increased by 3.6 percentage points.
In fact the number of degree holders in the workforce had increased by 86,700 persons in the last two years. This figure exceeds the number of undergraduate degrees granted by local institutions by at least 66,000. (8,330 undergraduate degrees were granted in 1993; the total number of degrees granted in 1993 and 1994 is believed to be less than 20,000.) It suggests that a lot of highly skilled workers have recently entered the Hong Kong workforce from places other than the local school system. This observation reinforces the view that recent in-migration had resulted in an increase in the relative supply of skilled labor.
Aggregate Labor Demand
Strong economic growth in Hong Kong during the late 1980s and early 1990s had fuelled a period of labor shortage and rising wage rates. While unemployment has been edging up since the second half of 1994, there is no indication yet in the available statistics that economic growth is entering a period of substantial slowdown. Preliminary estimates suggest that GDP at constant prices has risen 5.5 percent in 1994, which is marginally less than the 6.4 percent growth registered in 1993. GDP growth then rebounded to 5.9 percent in the first quarter of 1995. Solid economic growth explains why labor demand continued to grow. The rise in unemployment notwithstanding, the number of jobs (employment plus vacancies) in private industries actually increased 3.6 percent during 1994.
Table 4 shows the breakdown of various components of the recent growth experience. There is some indication that real increases in private consumption expenditure have slowed down since the second half of 1994.
Real Growth of Expenditure Components of GDP
Year 1993 1994 1995 Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Q1
Private consumption 7.2 8.6 5.5 9.9 11.3 6.1 4.6 4.0 1.2 government consumption 2.7 4.0 1.8 1.9 2.4 3.6 3.1 2.9 2.3 Gross investments 9.8 6.1 2.8 -0.3 15.5 8.7 6.4 23.5 4.0 construction 16.6 15.1 14.5 6.1 16.7 10.6 17.9 15.5 -3.6 machinery and equipment 15.9 8.7 -3.1 -5.0 11.9 8.0 2.6 40.3 21.8 Total exports of goods 19.1 11.8 14.6 9.8 7.7 11.3 10.8 11.3 17.6 Imports of goods 19.1 11.4 15.1 7.0 8.3 15.1 14.7 17.1 21.7 GDP 6.8 6.3 6.5 6.1 5.7 5.3 5.4 5.1 5.9 Implicit Price Deflator of GDP 9.3 8.9 8.1 8.2 8.9 8.7 6.9 6.9 5.8
Note: Figures refer to percentage growth over the same quarter in the preceding year.
Source: Quarterly estimates of Gross Domestic Product, August 1995
Construction activities suffered a real decline in 1995 Q1 following the setback in the property market. On the other hand, investments in machinery and equipment grew faster in 1994 than in 1993. The external trade sector also enjoyed a healthy dose of growth. On the whole the rate of increase of real GDP and of the GDP deflator were slightly lower in 1994 and early 1995 than in 1993. These changes, however, are too small to justify a reliable forecast for the future.
While available statistics have not shown definite signs of slowdown in aggregate demand, one should bear in mind that many of these statistics are not entirely up-to-date. Many crucial statistics about general business conditions are only current up to the first quarter of 1995. Even if second quarter figures were available, the time series would be too short to distinguish temporary aberrations from changes in underlying trends.
Labor Demand in Restaurants and Retailing
In 1995 Q1, the growth of private consumption expenditure was a sluggish 1.2 percent. There is some evidence that such a pattern will continue into the entire year. The growth in retail sales has decelerated since early 1994; and growth was actually negative for the first five months of 1995. Similarly, restaurant receipts have been falling in real value for a year.
Rising interest rates, falling asset prices and the less explosive growth of the Chinese economy have probably all contributed to a reduced propensity to spend. In the run up to 1997, consumer sentiments can change easily. A sudden wave of consumer pessimism could potentially have a major impact on the economy. At this moment, such a possibility remains purely speculative. If the decline in retail sales and restaurant receipts continues and is found to spread to other services industries, then there should be cause for alarm. (The Business Receipts Indices for Services Industries for 1995 Q1 have not shown signs of decline. The 1995 Q2 figures deserve close scrutiny.)
Workers in manufacturing industries tend to be less educated than those in the services industries. Among the major services industries, "wholesale and retail trade, restaurants and hotels" tend to be relatively less education-intensive. Thus the retail sector and the restaurant business have always been an important source of jobs for those who left manufacturing industries.
According to a special survey conducted by the Census and Statistics Department, there were 101,900 people who were working in the manufacturing sector in 1987 and who worked in other sectors in 1992. Of these 101,900 individuals, 42,300 (or 41.5 percent) were in wholesale and retail trade, and restaurants and hotels (Social Data Collected by the General Household Survey: Special Topics Report No. IX). In contrast, of all workers in non-manufacturing sectors in 1992, only 34.9 percent were in wholesale and retail trade, and restaurants and hotels. In other words, restaurants and the retail business absorbed a disproportionate share of workers who left or who were displaced from manufacturing jobs.
During the structural transformation of the Hong Kong economy, the expansion of restaurants and retailing had helped maintain a strong demand for labor in spite of a declining manufacturing sector. If labor demand in wholesale, retail trade, restaurants, and hotels fails to grow, unemployed workers who previously worked in manufacturing would find it much harder to find new jobs.
Unemployment: Demand and Supply Factors
A person is defined to be unemployed if he does not have a job but is seeking one. An unemployed person is counted as part of the economically active population (i.e., the labor force). The size of the unemployed population is equal to the size of the labor force less the number of employed persons. Notice, however, that this is a definitional identity rather than a theory of unemployment. In particular unemployment need not be higher in an economy with a larger labor force, because total employment is not fixed. In Hong Kong, the size of the local labor force has grown more than a third in the last fifteen years; yet the unemployment rate has been maintained at less than five percent throughout the period. Productivity improvements, expansion of trade, and the growth of the labor force itself have generated a rising demand for labor that created new jobs for the labor force entrants. During this period, the structure of the economy also underwent significant shifts. Manufacturing industries have shed close to 450,000 jobs since 1979. The number of persons engaged in private services industries, on the other hand, rose by about 1.1 million.
Over the long run, the size of the labor force as such bears no relationship to the rate of unemployment. However, changes in the size of the labor force can temporarily affect the unemployment rate. Since labor market adjustments are not instantaneous, a sudden large increase in labor supply unaccompanied by corresponding growth in labor demand can prolong the job search process and therefore increase the unemployment rate.
Figure 1 plots the annual percentage growth of the labor force and the unemployment rate. It shows that the two series follow a broadly similar pattern over time. Regression analysis suggests the two variables are positively correlated, with a correlation coefficient of 0.43 (t-statistic=1.91). In 1995 Q2, the growth of the labor force over the preceding year was 4.1 percent. This yields a predicted unemployment rate of 2.99 percent using the same regression line (1995 Q2 figures are not used in the original estimation of the regression equation). The actual unemployment rate in 1995 Q2 turned out to be 2.94 percent. Thus the recent rise in unemployment can almost be entirely explained by the large increase in the size of the labor force.
On the demand side, total employment in 1995 Q2 grew at a healthy 2.7 percent over the same quarter in the preceding year. However figures from employer surveys do indicate that the growth of labor demand in retailing and restaurants has been weak.
From 1994 Q1 to 1995 Q1, among other sectors, the manufacturing sector suffered the largest decline in employment (-13.3 percent) and the largest fall in number of vacancies (-38.9 percent). This has been part of the long term feature of the Hong Kong economy, with manufacturing firms moving their production operations to China and elsewhere to take advantage of lower land and labor costs. What is worth noting is that the sector "wholesale and retail trade, restaurants and hotels" registered the smallest growth in employment (and the biggest reduction in vacancies) among the non-manufacturing industries. Since workers who lost jobs in manufacturing often find it easier to move to the retail and restaurants sector than to other services industries, a slowdown in retail sales and restaurant receipts resulting from reduced consumption spending would make it harder for these unemployed workers to find new jobs.
Labor Importation Schemes
The above analysis suggests that the recent rise in the unemployment rate is mainly a market adjustment problem caused by the large net inflow of the working-age population into Hong Kong, at a time when there is a slowdown in the growth of labor demand in the restaurants and retail business. Public concern about the unemployment problem, however, has centered around its relation to various labor importation schemes. There are several reasons to believe that such an emphasis is misplaced:
(1) The number of workers brought in under various labor importation schemes is very small relative to the overall increase in size of the labor force. In the year 1994, 2,400 workers were admitted under the General Labour Importation Scheme and another 2,310 were admitted under the Special Scheme for Airport and Related Projects. By contrast, the labor force grew by 99,600 individuals. As is detailed earlier, the recent rise in size of the labor force was mainly due to sudden changes in the number of return migrants relative to emigrants. Even if no imported workers were allowed into Hong Kong in 1994, labor supply would still have increased 3.3 percent (instead of the actual 3.5 percent)--more than 2 percentage points higher than the annual labor force growth during 1987-1992.
(2) The timing is not right. The number of workers who entered Hong Kong under the General Labor Importation Scheme after 1992 (6,000) is less than that before 1992 (13,000). Since August 1994, the government has stopped issuing new quotas for imported workers. If the flow of imported labor were the chief culprit for unemployment, the rise in the unemployment rate would have become manifest much earlier, when the flow of imported workers was larger (both in absolute level and as a percentage of the overall increase in the size of the labor force).
(3) Workers who came to Hong Kong under the labor importation schemes are mostly concentrated near the lower end of the skills spectrum. If imported workers were the main cause of unemployment, workers with little or no schooling would be most affected, while highly educated people would experience little increase in unemployment. However, Table 5 shows that the recent rise in unemployment is broad-based across different education levels. The unemployment rate for those with no schooling rose from 2.9 percent in 1994 Q1 to 3.4 percent in 1995 Q1, and the unemployment rate for degree holders also rose from 1.3 percent to 1.9 percent.
(4) The Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme offers financial assistance to unemployed workers subject to a means test. Unemployed workers who claim such assistance are predominantly low-skill workers. If imported workers were the main cause of unemployment, low-skill and low-wage workers would be particularly hard hit, and therefore the number of claims for unemployment assistance would rise at a rate faster than the general rise in unemployment. In the first three months of 1995, the average number of Social Security Assistance cases for unemployed persons was 36 percent higher than that in the corresponding period of 1994 (Monthly Digest of Statistics, May 1995). The total number of unemployed persons, on the other hand, increased 38 percent. There is no evidence that imported workers are imposing a disproportionate burden on low-skill, low-income workers.
The contribution of imported workers to the recent rise in unemployment can be roughly assessed with the following mental experiment. Suppose the entire stock of 22,600 workers under the General Labour Importation Scheme and the Special Scheme for Airport and Related Projects were removed from the labor force during the last year (a drastic measure indeed), the annual growth of the labor force for 1995 Q2 would have been 3.3 percent instead of the actual 4.1 percent. Using the regression equation for the relationship between unemployment and labor force growth, the predicted unemployment rate would then be 2.85 percent instead of the original prediction of 2.99 percent. (The actual unemployment rate was 2.94 percent.) If the stock of existing imported workers is maintained, but further inflow is halted, the resulting reduction in unemployment would be even smaller.
Another issue that has attracted much attention is the possibility that structural changes in the economy may have rendered part of the population unemployable. If unemployment is concentrated among a core group of persons whose skills have become obsolete and who suffer long spells of joblessness, the social and personal costs are arguably greater than a situation where a large number of persons experience a relatively short spell of unemployment. Fortunately, Hong Kong's labor market is well known for its flexibility; in the past 15 years the economy has shed close to 450,000 manufacturing jobs with little adverse effect on wages and employment. The type of structural unemployment that has plagued many European countries has not been a problem for Hong Kong.
Previous research by this author indicates that sectoral shifts increased neither the aggregate unemployment rate nor unemployment in declining industries. More updated data also give similar conclusions. The index of sectoral shift and the unemployment rate for the period 1982-1994 are, in fact, negatively correlated.
From the breakdown of unemployed persons by education level (Table 5), one can observe that the recent rise in unemployment is more or less evenly distributed across people with different education attainment. The recent rise in unemployment is also evenly borne by people in all age categories. While unemployment was higher in 1995 Q1 (2.6%) than in earlier periods, the rise in unemployment was not confined to particular age groups. Old age workers (those aged between 50 and 59) experienced an increase in their unemployment rate from 2.0 percent in 1994 Q1 to 2.9 percent in 1995 Q1. Prime age workers (those aged between 30 and 39) also experienced an increase in their unemployment rate of a similar magnitude (from 1.3 percent to 2.0 percent). There is no evidence that old people (who are less likely to learn new skills) have fared worse than younger workers.
One concern about displaced workers with little skill is that they may drop out of the labor force as employment prospects turn bleak. If this is really the case, unemployment rate figures would underestimate the true deterioration in labor market conditions. Fortunately, there is no evidence that such a "discouraged worker" effect is at work in Hong Kong.
The Census and Statistics Department explicitly tries to control for the discouraged worker effect by asking respondents the reason why they do not seek work. Those who do not try to find a job because they think work is unavailable are included as part of the unemployed population. Moreover, labor force participation rates did not fall during the recent rise in unemployment. In particular, for married women aged over 40, the labor force participation rate increased from 27.8 percent in 1994 Q1 to 28.3 percent in 1995 Q1. There is no evidence that married women have chosen to withdraw from the labor force as they became unemployed.
Unemployment Rate by Education Attainment
Education attainment 1991Q1 1992Q1 1993Q1 1994Q1 1995Q1
No schooling/kindergarten 1.6% 1.7% 2.1% 2.9% 3.4% Primary 1.2% 2.5% 2.4% 2.3% 3.3% Secondary/matriculation 1.7% 2.2% 2.2% 1.9% 2.7% Tertiary (non-degree) 0.5% 1.1% 1.9% 1.3% 1.3% Tertiary (degree) 1.3% 1.6% 1.6% 1.3% 1.9% Overall 1.5% 2.1% 2.2% 1.9% 2.6%
Source: Quarterly Report on General Household Survey, various issues
While there is no evidence that the recent rise in unemployment is concentrated among low-skill workers, the data do suggest a slight increase in long duration unemployment spells relative to short duration spells. The median duration rose from 53 days in 1991 Q1 to 66 days in 1995 Q1. More disturbingly, the share of unemployed persons who had been unemployed for more than six months increased from 12.4 percent to 18.1 percent during the same period. Given the present income level of the population, unemployment spells which last for less than one month are unlikely to cause severe hardship to those affected. However, long-term unemployment of more than six months can be debilitating both financially and psychologically. The gradual rise of long duration unemployment, if verified by more careful analysis, is potentially a bigger problem than the recent rise in the aggregate unemployment rate.
Because many pieces of data for early 1995 are not yet available, and because economic interactions display long and variable lags, our understanding of the recent rise in unemployment remains incomplete. Nevertheless several facts can still be established with some degree of confidence:
The labor shortage of Hong Kong experienced during 1989-1993 was associated with a period of slow labor force growth. The recent rise in unemployment is associated with a strong resurgence in labor force growth.
The change in labor force growth was mainly a result of changes in the pattern of emigration and return migration. The steady increase in the number of foreign professional workers, foreign domestic helpers, and legal immigrants from China also played a part. Workers who came to Hong Kong under the General Labour Importation Scheme and the Special Scheme for Airport and Related Projects account for less than 5 percent of the net inflow of working age population into Hong Kong in 1994.
The number of jobs available in an economy is not fixed. In the long run, the size of the labor force bears no relationship to unemployment. In the short run, increases in the size of the labor force may temporarily raise the unemployment rate.
The recent rise in unemployment is not confined to elderly or low-skill workers. People in all age groups and at all education levels have experienced a greater incidence of unemployment.
While these facts can be pieced together to form a general picture about the nature of the recent unemployment problem, future unemployment rates cannot be predicted with any confidence. Among other things, the future course of unemployment will depend on two major factors: (1) aggregate demand conditions, especially sales in restaurants, retail, and other services industries; and (2) changes in emigration and return migration in the run-up to 1997. Unfortunately each of these factors is notoriously hard to predict. More and better data will help, but they will only marginally reduce the degree of uncertainty inherent in any forecast of the unemployment rate.
Dr. Wing Suen is a lecturer in the School of Economics and Finance at the University of Hong Kong. This article is an abridged version of a research report prepared by Dr. Suen for the Hong Kong Centre for Economic Research. Copies of the original report are available at $40 each. Please send requests with a check payable to the Centre.