OPINION – Number numbness?

Macau saw this last weekend an uncommon event: a demonstration of disgruntled workers.

It was a get-together of unemployed construction workers demanding some support to cope with difficult times. According to the media reporting of the event, it ended up with a forced entry into the premises of the Labour Affairs Bureau and led to the interruption of traffic in the area. 

Regardless of the rights or wrongs about this specific incident that the coming days may bring to the fore, its mere occurrence justifies a few thoughts concerning the labour market and employment conditions.  Overall, most related indicators do not seem too dramatic; but that may build some complacency not without dangers.

First, not everything is measurable or can be easily monitored. Then, we look only for data selected according to some formalized reality model, setting out what is important to observe and what is not, namely for policy purposes. That may change over time.

Different and variable circumstances will require additional elements to provide context and depth to the recorded figures’ analysis. Furthermore, the quality of the information depends on the quality of the data gathering apparatus, its ability to collect and process information rigorously and timely. It is a fact of life that statistical data always trails behind the facts. Sometimes, it misses them completely.

The numbers for unemployment seem mild compared to what is known about how most companies dealt with the extraordinary operational conditions last year. There is ample anecdotal evidence concerning lay-offs, mandatory work time reductions or holidays, and pay cuts. 

Statistics may deal poorly with features quite different from the ones they were meant to reflect. Alone, statistical figures are imperfect mirrors of brewing society’s troubles. The demonstration may signal that turbulence goes deeper than the numbers and the local community’s usually peaceful demeanour suggests.

Contrary to a common cliché, numbers seldom, if ever, speak for themselves. Let us hope the relative benignity of the labour market data so far does not numb our collective mind for the real pains this pandemic creates for many people, here and elsewhere.

Societies need some level of collective solidarity and compassion for those less favoured by Fortune. More than just a moral matter, it may help prevent social instability. Those fortunate enough to have their incomes protected in these extraordinary times might be wise to keep that in mind.