Pandemic and politics leave Hong Kong's poor languishing

Over the last two years, the number of Hong Kong households earning just $1,600 or less a month has doubled to more than 149,000. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Squeezed into a tiny temporary apartment, Rainbow and her family struggle to make ends meet in Hong Kong, where the number of households in poverty has soared during recent political turmoil and the coronavirus pandemic.

For much of the last year, Rainbow's electrician husband left their 27 sq m studio flat each morning to look for work. Most days he returns empty-handed.

"Before the pandemic, he could regularly work for 20 to 25 days a month, but now he only gets four to five days of work," the 43-year-old told AFP, asking to use just her nickname.

"The worst was when he couldn't find any job for a whole month."

On paper, Hong Kong is one of the world's wealthiest cities. Per capita incomes are around US$48,000 (S$65,641) - about the same level as Germany - while the government has enviable reserves of around US$116 billion despite a a year of heavy pandemic spending.

The financial hub hosts more than 5,000 billionaires, according to Knight Frank's annual global Wealth Report, along with another 280,000 people worth US$1 million or more.

But the city is also a poster child for inequality, and the other end of the spectrum tells a different story.

Over the last two years, the number of households earning just HK$9,100 (S$1,600) or less a month has doubled to more than 149,000, according to a recent government report.

Rainbow's family now languish in that income bracket, down from HK$25,000 a year ago, a pittance in place that routinely tops global surveys of the most expensive cities to rent or buy property.

She has capped her household's daily food bill at HK$100, but does her best to make sure her two daughters - aged four and 18 - still eat healthily. "We adults will eat canned goods, while the kids can eat fresh food," she said.

Hong Kong entered the pandemic with its economy already deep in recession after months of huge and often violent democracy demonstrations in 2019.

The protests were partly sparked by growing frustration towards the city's unelected pro-Beijing leaders, who have struggled to tackle inequality or solve the acute housing crisis that makes Hong Kong one of the world's least affordable places.

A surge in needy families over the time since was especially alarming because Hong Kong has few social safety nets, said Ms Lai Hiu-tung of the Concern for Grassroots' Livelihood Alliance charity group. "Most of the relief measures are short-term or one-off," she told AFP.

Maggie, 35, is from one of hundreds of families who have relied on twice-weekly food relief packages from Ms Lai's organisation in recent months. She lost her sales job while pregnant with one of her two daughters and has not managed to find work since.

Her husband, who also works in sales, saw his income plunge 30 per cent during the pandemic to just HK$14,000 a month.

"His company policy changed and he got much less in commission fees. The retail sector is going through a severe winter and much less people want to spend money on shopping," she said.

She and her husband have considered trying to work for food delivery platforms. But competition is tight. "Too many people are unemployed, it's not just you who wants an extra job," she said.

Hong Kong's unemployment rate soared to a 17-year high of 7.2 per cent at the beginning of the year, although it has since come down a little.

Critics say Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has prioritised China's national security driven crackdown on dissent since the democracy protests and lost track of livelihood issues and the economy.

Law enforcement officials were promoted during a recent cabinet reshuffle, including former security chief John Lee who was made Ms Lam's deputy, a position that traditionally deals with livelihood issues.

Ms Lam defended her administration's record in recent interviews, arguing she had done "not too bad a job" and saying she planned to "make more effort" on issues like poverty alleviation.

Her five-year term expires next summer and she has said housing will be a priority. The average waiting time for a public housing under has risen to 5.8 years during Ms Lam's tenure - more than 12 months higher than when she took office in mid-2017.

Rainbow's family, who have been waiting more than seven years, live in a transitional unit. In many ways they feel fortunate. Before that, they lived in one of the city's many abysmal rooftop shacks - tumbledown homes crammed onto the tops of other buildings.

But she says she cannot rest easily watching her meagre savings deplete with each passing week. "I can't sleep and feel very unhappy," she said. "Everyone feels the pressure."

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