Despite the improvement in the unemployment tally, there are still implications in the overall employment situation, with a certain portion of employees facing fewer working hours and lower wages.
Though the government has reiterated employers could not force employees to take unpaid leave as the unprecedented pandemic has wreaked havoc in the local economy and beyond, Ms Lei has been left with little choice. “We haven’t been asked to take [the unpaid leave] but the atmosphere makes you ‘volunteer’ to do so,” says the casino croupier in her forties, who works in a casino in the Macau Peninsula.
After taking about 50 days off last year, half paid and half unpaid, Ms Lei originally expected this furlough policy which made her earn about 10 per cent less last year could end before the Chinese New Year holiday. But the fluctuations in new COVID-19 cases across the globe have continued to dampen the economic and tourism performance of the territory so far this year. “The ‘volunteer’ unpaid scheme of my company now continues at least until the summer,” she adds.
Her case is not rare, albeit the local employment situation is improving, where thousands of workers might be able to keep their jobs but have to suffer fewer working hours and lower wages.
Latest official data show the overall unemployment rate here totalled 2.7 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2020, down from 2.9 per cent in the third quarter which was the highest level in more than a decade. For residents alone, the jobless rate reached 3.8 per cent in the October-December period, down by 0.3 percentage points from the worst tally in more than a decade in the preceding quarter.
As the unemployment situation has bettered in recent months, the government data also show about 20,200 workers in the territory were underemployed, a situation in which they work involuntarily fewer than 35 hours a week. With the employed population of close to 400,000, the underemployment rate hit a record high of 5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020 since the establishment of the Macau SAR, surging from 4.7 percent in the preceding quarter and from 0.5 percent a year earlier.
Among the 292,400 residents that were employed in the October-December period, the underemployment rate increased by one percentage point from the preceding three months to 6.2 percent, the highest ever quarterly performance since such data was available in 2013.
“The rising underemployment rate is a potential risk for a micro-economy like Macau — this means some workers might have a chance to lose their job in the future as they are on no-paid leave now or have insufficient working hours,” says lawmaker-cum-scholar Joey Lao Chi Ngai. “Though a vaccination plan has been gradually rolled out locally and globally it is expected the current travel restrictions might still be in place for some time, imposing more uncertainties on the recovery path of the local economy.”
The first batch of 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine produced by China National Pharmaceutical Group arrived in the city last month, which will also source vaccines by BioNTech and its Chinese partner Fosun Pharma and another type developed by AstraZeneca. Macau residents could apply to take the vaccine starting from last month, while the government noted the vaccination plan might also extend to non-resident workers depending on the stock inventory.
“As the business environment and employment situation in some sectors might be particularly grim… the government could consider rolling out more targeted measures to keep local businesses afloat and ensure local employment,” Mr Lao says.
A recent survey done by the Association of Macau Gaming Enterprises Staff show that among over 610 employees in the sector polled, close to 60 per cent said they had taken unpaid leave last year, most in the format of the so-called “Care Leave” scheme, in which workers are entitled to one day of additional paid leave after applying for one unpaid day off. The older the workers, the more likely they had been forced to take unpaid leave, the affiliate of the Macau Federation of Trade Unions, the city’s largest labour group, said.
Despite not working in the frontline position, Belinda* — who works in the marketing department at a Cotai resort — has also been “asked” to take unpaid leave. “My boss of course didn’t specifically ask us to do so but when she talked about the ‘Care Leave’ policy we got the message,” she says, who had about two weeks of unpaid days off last year.
“My team, which has about five people, had a huge workload before the pandemic hit. So when each of us took turns to take the leave [last year] the workload for those in the office was even more,” she says. “I would be grateful if I could leave some time around 7 pm every day.”
But the situation in terms of non-paid leave has been ameliorated for her team in the past few months. “We haven’t been ‘asked’ to apply for non-paid leave except at the start [of the ‘Care Leave’ scheme] but I know those in the hotel and casino operation have still been ‘asked’ to do so,” Belinda adds.
According to the Statistics and Census Service, among the underemployed population of 20,200 in the fourth quarter of last year, about 53 per cent — or 10,700 employees — were involved in the gaming and recreational service, followed by 2,500 workers in the transport and communication industry and 2,200 in the hotel and dining sectors.
For Ryan*, who works as a sales representative for a luxury brand in another Cotai resort, his situation has been similar. “We had shorter working hours and took turns to take one day off a week for a few months last year, but the working arrangement has been back to normal during the summer before the return of IVS visitors,” he says referring to Mainland Chinese that came to the city under the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS). The approval for IVS visas to Macau for visitors from Guangdong province has been resumed since last August after months of suspension and the resumption across the nation since September.
Latest government data show over 556,700 travellers visited the city in January, or 17,960 visitors a day, declining 15.6 per cent from a month earlier and reversing a month-to-month rising trend since last April. The tally of visitor arrivals during the Chinese New Year holiday was also dismal this year, totalling 90,615 between 11 and 17 February, or close to 13,000 visitors a day. This represented a plunge of 65.3 per cent from the CNY period last year and well below the government’s target of 16,000 to 20,000 visitors a day.
“Together with commissions my payroll last year was like 20-25 per cent less than before. It is not as bad as I thought it would be because there are still quite a few residents and travellers that have the financial power to spend on luxury goods,” Ryan continues. “Just like the past Chinese New Year holiday [last month], we had queues of people almost every day waiting to come in and check out the products.”
With the lacklustre tourism and gaming performance, the city’s gross domestic product (GDP) plunged 59.8 per cent year-on-year in the first three quarters of 2020; while the government revenue also went down 30 per cent year-on-year for the entirety of 2020, the latest official data said. Analysts have forecasted the GDP could rebound this year, but no significant signs of recovery are expected at least until the second half of 2021.
“The impact caused by the pandemic upon the local labour market is still severe,” says legislator Ella Lei Cheng I from the Macau Federation of Trade Unions. “We have still heard that many workers have lost their job, had pay cuts or less working hours, particularly those engaged in tourism and relative services given the slow recovery in the sector. The situation is still worrying.”
“The unemployment rate has improved in recent months, showing that the measures rolled out by the government like the subsidised occupation training scheme have helped stabilise the labour market,” the lawmaker says, referring to the “Subsidised Training Scheme Geared Towards Employability” for the unemployed and university graduates, in which participants are entitled to a subsidy of MOP6,656 to attend job skill enhancement courses from business management to technology training and tourism. “But the local economic recovery has been slower than expected, together with the unemployment rate still hovering at a high level and the deteriorating underemployment figure, the government should roll out a new round of measures to support local workers promptly.”
*Names have been changed as requested by interviewees