According to an earlier Oxfam report, most of the working poor are employed in lowskilled service jobs. Many are middleaged women who face both age and sex discrimination in the workplace.
Kan (not her real name), who is nearly 40, is one of them. The mother of two works two cleaning jobs, 15 hours a day. That leaves her with nine hours to eat, sleep, do household chores and spend time with her children. She earns $8,400 a month and together with her husband, who is also a cleaner, the family has a total income of about $15,000.
The family of four lives in a tiny metal rooftop shack and one third of the couple’s earnings is used to pay the rent and utilities bills. “We have to be extremely frugal in order to support our expenses and we have no savings at all,” Kan says.
Since they arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland in 1996, Kan’s family has never dined out or had dim sum during holidays or festivals. She spends around $70 to $80 per day to cook two meals for four people, equivalent to $10 per person each meal.
She has not applied for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance because she believes in self-sufficiency. “I am afraid people will think I am greedy if I ask for too much help from the government.” The only assistance she gets from the government is money for internet access and textbooks for her sons.
And it is to her children that Kan looks for hope. “I always tell my sons to save as much as they can, and to study harder in order to have a better future,” she says. “I hope they can go to university and are able to pay for their tuition fees.”
“No matter how poor we are, it is important that we are still together,” Kan adds, “we are poor, but we are joyful.”
However, she does also hope that the government and society can do something to help the lot of the working poor. Kan earns as little as $20 an hour and outsourcing is the main reason for her low wages because subcontractors at each level take a cut of the money for the work. She believes the government tendering system contributes to the problem of the working poor. Companies that make the lowest bids win the contracts and squeezing workers’ wages is the obvious and easy way to keep costs down.
“I hope that labour will not be exploited so seriously,” Kan says.
Mr Wong, the sole breadwinner of a six-person family also hopes the government can do more. Since migrating to Hong Kong from the mainland in 1996, Wong has worked in a carwash, a hotel and in a restaurant. He currently works as a cook on the night shift – from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. – in a Mong Kok restaurant, for $12,600 a month.
The only time Wong spends with his children is in the mornings after work. “Even though I am sleepy, I will take my son to kindergarten in the morning,” Wong says. Other than that, he only has four days off each month. His job has taken up most of his life, but he is stoical. “A fair exchange is no robbery,” he sighs.
With his wife, sister, grandmother, a child at kindergarten and a newborn baby to support, Wong has to find ways to cut expenditure. For instance, he takes bread home if any is leftover at the restaurant and he has sought food assistance from the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals. The service provides rations of rice, noodles, tinned food and baby formula for up to six weeks.
He also walks for an hour back from Mong Kok to his home in Lai Chi Kok when he finishes work every day. This saves him the $7.40 bus fare.
Most of Wong’s income goes on rent and food. He spends around $3,000 on rent for the family’s public rental flat. He also needs to satisfy the needs of his growing children, so he hopes his wife will be able to find some part-time jobs when she no longer has to look after the children full-time.
In terms of government assistance, Wong thinks the waiving of the rent for public housing for three months this year was the greatest help for his family.
Thanks for spotlighting Hong Kong’s working poor in this article. The woman who pushed trash in your photo reminds me how certain things in HK have not changed since I was a kid, when trash was manually and tediously moved the same way. The crux of the problem of poverty is, in my view, caused by inequitable distribution of wealth within society. Hong Kong’s income and capital gains tax rates are among the lowest in the world, which benefit local and foreign earners and investors alike. Taxes are consistently low due to consistently available source of cheap labor to ‘subsize’ those low tax rates. Sadly, the benefits of those low tax rates have never ‘trickled down’ society to lift people from poverty and to improve public education. As a result, the poor is trapped in a continuous cycle of poverty. All in all, I think HK’s mode of capitalism (based on exploitation of cheap labor) is hopelessly out-of-date.
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