If the British Government could announce that unemployment was affecting only 3.2 per cent of the workforce, it would revel in the achievement. In Hong Kong this level, the highest in nine years, has become a matter of public concern. Last week a 20-year-old man leapt to his death, leaving a note to say he could not cope with being out of work. The Samaritan Befrienders report an upsurge in calls from people worried about losing their jobs.
A few years ago full employment, meaning unemployment of no more than 2 per cent, was the norm. Job security was scarcely a problem. The problem was supposed to be a shortage of labour, resulting in the introduction of a scheme to import workers.
Alongside Hong Kong's other worries about the transition to Chinese rule, there is a feeling that the days of plenty are over. Although the economy is still growing, inflation is high, spending is down and the value of property is dropping. Even university graduates, who used to have the pick of the jobs, are feeling the pinch. A trade-union survey indicated that 30 per cent of this year's graduates are unemployed.
Pun Kam-chung, who recently graduated with a degree in public and social administration, fears he will have to take a job as a salesman or security guard in a housing estate, a job some of his fellow graduates are doing for want of an alternative. "The economy is so bad that I feel very disappointed and frustrated," he said.
The experience of Lai Sing-kwan, 48, mirrors the progress of Hong Kong's economy. He has worked in the textile industry, the printing industry and in electronics factories. Each job was lost as companies relocated in China.
According to a Hong Kong Trade Development Council survey, 80 per cent of the colony's manufacturing companies have moved production north of the border in search of lower labour costs. Jobs have been decimated.
Those who suffer worst tend to be older, and one third are over the age of 40.
The shift of jobs to service industries creates special problems, especially for older women, as employers, freed from regulations that once prevented the practice, openly advertise for young and attractive female workers.
Lai Kwong-hung, 62, may never work again, but cannot afford to stop looking.
His social-security payments barely keep him going, and his children are too poor to help. Laid off as a shipyard worker, he takes odd jobs whenever he can get them.
"Living standards are visibly falling and people are suffering all around us," said Ng Wai-tung, of the Society of Community Organisations: "The problem is going to get worse and worse."