Hong Kong’s jobless rate remained unchanged at 6.1 per cent in August during the height of the city’s third wave of Covid-19 infections, but the number of people underemployed hit a 17-year high.
For the rolling three months between June and August, the unemployment rate stayed the same as for the May to July period, the Census and Statistics Department revealed on Thursday, with the number of people without work rising by 5,800 to 248,300.
The third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in early July plunged the city deeper into a public health crisis, with more people infected and dying from the virus than previously and tougher social-distancing rules imposed.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong said the underemployment rate rose 0.3 percentage points to a post-Sars high of 3.8 per cent, with increases concentrated in the food and beverage services, transport, insurance and education sectors.
The number of underemployed people rose by 13,200 to 149,200.
“The labour market remained austere in June-August 2020 as the third wave of the local epidemic in July and August continued to disrupt a wide range of economic activities, notwithstanding that the employment support scheme had continued to provide support,” he said.
“While the local epidemic situation has started to ease gradually in September, the global pandemic is still fluctuating in a rising trend and the overall economic situation remains weak.”
Since the onset of the third wave of coronavirus infections on July 5, the number of confirmed cases jumped about threefold from 1,268 to 4,993, including nine on Thursday, while the death toll surged from seven to 102.
As a result, the government tightened social-distancing rules by banning evening dine-in services at restaurants, while telling about 170,000 civil servants to work from home and closing most entertainment venues, health and beauty parlours, and sports facilities.
During the June-August period, the food and beverage sector as well as the consumption and tourism industries remained the worst hit. The jobless rate in the food and beverage services sector rose to 14.4 per cent while underemployment increased to 8.3 per cent.
The retail, accommodation and food services sectors combined saw the unemployment rate edge up 0.1 percentage points to 10.9 per cent in the three-month period – the highest since the onslaught of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003 while the underemployment rate rose 0.9 percentage points to 5.9 per cent.
The construction sector did not fare any better, with the unemployment rate hovering at 11.1 per cent and underemployment at 8.1 per cent. Underemployment worsened in such sectors as transport, insurance and education.
Some Hong Kong companies and workers received further support on Thursday. The government revealed that 20,000 employers were granted HK$7.2 billion (US$923 million) in wage subsidies for nearly 290,000 workers among initial approvals, four days after applications for the second tranche of its employment support scheme closed on Sunday.
Almost all of them were successfully granted subsidies in the first tranche between June and August, it said. The second tranche covers the period from September to November.
Throwing a lifeline to embattled businesses, the government on Tuesday revealed a fresh HK$24 billion package of relief measures covering industries hit hardest by the third wave of Covid-19.
However, the retail and hospitality sectors were left out altogether.
ING Greater China economist Iris Pang said the wage subsidy scheme disguised the real unemployment situation.
“The scheme itself buys time for employers and disguises the actual unemployment,” she said. “And the higher the underemployment rate, the higher the unemployment rate.”
Pang added that the relaxation of social-distancing rules increased the risks of more Covid-19 cases.
She estimated the unemployment rate would hit 8 per cent within this year, the highest since October 2003.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong records nine new Covid-19 cases, as city faces return of infections from unknown sources
- Uber Hong Kong driver numbers surge during Covid-19 crisis, as demand rises for ride-hailing firm’s trips, deliveries