Difficulties in adapting to the demands of a much-changed workplace are just one of the challenges former homemakers face after a long period of absence. They frequently also have juggle family responsibilities.
For instance, although her son is now grown up, Kwong Kam-yuk still has to take care of her 86-year-old parents-in-law, which means she cannot work full-time. Both her parents-in-law have health problems like high blood pressure and high cholesterol; they sometimes get lost on the streets. Also, they both speak Fujianese, which makes it difficult for them to communicate with their doctor. Therefore, Kwong has to accompany them to their appointments.
The difficulties faced by women like Kwong and Chan make it harder for the government to achieve its goal of getting more women to rejoin the workforce. As the population ages, Hong Kong faces a labour shortage. In the 2013 consultation document on population policy, the government proposed that more women should be encouraged back to work to ease the labour shortage.
But this is easier said than done because women are still held back due to structural issues such as access to affordable childcare, the lack of family friendly workplace policies and gender stereotypes.
Si-si Liu Pui-shan, the director of the Hong Kong Federation of Women’s Centres, says many women tend to choose part-time jobs due to their family responsibilities. This limits their income and career prospects, putting them in a disadvantaged position.
As women usually earn less than men in the family, they are often the ones who have to give up their careers to take care of the family. “Why should women be the ones to bear the care-giving responsibility from the very beginning?” she says.
Not only are women expected to take up the homemaker role, but Liu points out that society and employers do not recognise household management and care-giving as legitimate work experience. This despite the fact that many of the tasks women perform in the home, such as lifting and transferring the elderly, are similar in nature to paid work in places like care homes.
If they want recognition of such skills, former homemakers can enroll for training courses with the Employees Retraining Board (ERB), which is an independent statutory body established under the Employees Retraining Ordinance. The ERB has been providing and funding market-driven and employment-oriented training courses since 1992.
Some of these training courses are placement-tied, offering trainees with an attendance rate of at least 80 per cent three to six month placements to help them re-enter the job market. According to the ERB, up to 80 per cent of trainees in 2015-16 were women.
Liu says most of the courses cater to employers’ needs and are focused on sectors that are experiencing a shortage of labour. For instance, because of the ageing population and the need for caregivers in nursing homes, the ERB runs courses for potential caregivers which teach them how to feed the elderly, help them to walk, and even assist them with simple physiotherapy treatment.
The problem is, although there are vacancies for these jobs, there is also a high turnover because of the long hours, hard work and low pay.