Nelson Chow Wing-sun, a chair professor at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at TheUniversity of Hong Kong, says the freeze on public housing rents since 1997 has helped the poor to get by. But he believes the government should keep prices low and stable for daily goods so people at the grassroots level will be able to maintain their basic living even if they do not earn much.
Chow points out that the rising rent for small shops in public housing estates, under the management of The Link REIT has hit the poor hard. These shops have had to raise prices to cover their costs but the poor have not had pay rises to match. “If a family of three to four just earns about $6,000 to $7,000 a month, they will have to think twice before spending every dollar,” Chow says.
Chow describes the problem of the working poor as a problem of excessive supply and decreasing demand. He says there has been a decrease in demand for lower-skilled workers since the 1980s, when Hong Kong factories started to move to the mainland.
This was coupled with an increase in migrants from the mainland.The number of new arrivals from the mainland swelled from the mid-1990s, when more relaxed arrangements for entry to Hong Kong brought many older and poorly educated migrants from the mainland. These workers had little choice but to take on low-skilled jobs, for instance as security guards, cleaners and waiters.
Another crucial reason for the large numbers of working poor is that there was no compulsory education in Hong Kong until 1978. Therefore, many middle-aged workers are likely to have a low level of education and can only do manual work now.
However, Chow is optimistic about the future because he believes better education will provide more opportunities. The literacy rate is high in Hong Kong and, overall, schools provide a better education than they did in the past.
Chow believes this, plus the Employees Retraining Board, which offers vocational rehabilitation for unskilled workers, will lead to an improvement in the quality of the workforce. “If employers want to hire them, they need to pay better salaries,” says Chow.
Chow supports the implementation of a minimum wage and says around 300,000 workers will benefit from the new $28 an hour requirement. However, he concedes this is not a silver bullet for solving the problem of the working poor. It is structural, he says, and so deeply entrenched that only over time will the government and society find an answer.