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Hong Kong's working poor struggle to survive

Wages not keeping up with the city's skyrocketing property prices

Hong Kong's working poor struggle to survive

Pedestrians walk past street art painted on the shutters of a permanently closed shop in a public walkway through the old Central Market building in Hong Kong's Central district on March 11. (Photo by Tengku Bahar/AFP)

SL Fung, Hong Kong
Hong Kong

August 29, 2017

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Perhaps the most visual manifestation of Hong Kong's disparity of wealth, which new statistics show is widening, is the number of people who have jobs but sleep in the street.

They are homeless because the money they earn is just enough for food and other basics, but they cannot afford rental accommodation.

That the former British colony's wealth gap is growing has been underscored by Census and Statistics Department figures. An index ranging from zero to one puts the disparity at a record high.

The richest 10 percent of households — with a median monthly income of HK$112,450 (US$14,370) — earned 44 times more than the poorest 10 percent earning an average of HK$2,560.

The Census and Statistics Department argues that the effects of taxation and social benefits should be considered.

 

No hope as before

Teresa, 50, started doing business in China during the 1990s, but got into debt after being cheated and had to sell her apartment. Crippling rents for a decade eased when a friend leased her an apartment for HK$6,000 per month. She had been paying HK$20,000.

In five years, the HK$6,000 rent rose to HK$10,000 per month. Even to pay this amount, Teresa had to do three jobs, on top of her husband's salary, to help provide for her family, which includes a son. Rent, daily expenses and transportation soaked up 70 percent of the family's total income.

"No money was spare for saving," Teresa said.

Now the family, after years of waiting, has public housing for about HK$2,000 a month and Teresa feels "an incredible sense of relief."

Teresa now delivers newspapers in the morning and takeaway food in the afternoon for a monthly salary of around HK$6,000. She believes that ordinary people's earnings never catch up with higher property prices.

Even the minimum hourly wage being increased by HK$2 to HK$34.5 in May was still too low to secure even basic living standards, she said. "There is no hope for me to resume my previous standard of living and have my own house," she said.

 

A man walks in front of homes at a public housing estate in Hong Kong on April 1. (Photo by Dale De La Rey/AFP)

 

The least affordable city

Earlier this year, Hong Kong ranked as the world's least affordable city to buy a home for the seventh year running, according to the U.S. Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.

The survey studies 406 cities around the world and finds that, in the third quarter of 2016, Hong Kong's flats cost 18.1 times the gross annual median income. This meant a family needed to save money for 18 years — without spending anything — to buy a flat. That figure was much higher than that of Sydney, which ranked second in the survey at the rate of 12.2.

Hong Kong Government figures also show that the proportion of mortgage contributions, in the first quarter of 2017, was as high as 66.1 percent of median household income. In other words, two-thirds of household incomes were used to pay mortgages.

Bobo Yip, a project officer of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Hong Kong, urged the government to prioritize disadvantaged groups.

She appealed directly to Hong Kong's new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, a Catholic.

"She should understand the spirit of faith and consider how to effectively allocate resources to better protect the needy," Bobo told ucanews.com.

This included simplifying applications for public rental housing and shortening the waiting time, currently three to four years.

 

Bring them love

Skyrocketing property prices exacerbated "street sleeper" homelessness, said David Shum, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Teresa Parish. He confirmed the phenomena of people in employment still being homeless.

St. Vincent de Paul is one of the Catholic groups in Hong Kong that provide regular services to the poor and marginalized.

Shum told ucanews.com that in the face of the widening wealth gap, it was import to bring love and the "spirit of Christ" to the poor to enable them to have the power to face life.

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