As far as the social welfare sector is concerned, 2017 might have been an eventful year. A former director of the Social Welfare Department was elected chief executive, a pan-democratic figure with a very high IQ was appointed secretary for labor and welfare, and there’s the raging controversy over the poor quality of service in private nursing homes, to mention just a few of what came to pass during the year.
But instead of reviewing the big issues, I would like to draw the readers’ attention to the stories of three ordinary people whom I met in 2017, because what happened to them could provide us with snapshots of the human condition in our city.
The first person was a middle-aged street cleaner whom I met one chilly morning on Feb. 10.
Working almost around the clock, this cleaner only made about HK$8,000 a month, and could hardly afford a pair of decent plastic shoes to wear at work. During working hours he has to change his uniform, take breaks and have his meals inside a small waste transfer station.
The fact that this hard-working man is leading a “poor and busy” life and trapped in a low-paying job presents an irony given our city’s wealth.
The second person I met was a 64-year-old homeless man known as “Brother Wei”. He used to live in a subdivided unit in Sham Shui Po. Unfortunately, he later came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized for two weeks.
Worse still, he was not able to resume work immediately after he was discharged from hospital, and could no longer afford to pay the rent. As a result, he was suddenly left homeless and had to take shelter in a back alley when the No. 8 typhoon signal was raised.
Struggling to get by and living paycheck to paycheck, Wei had to resume working despite his poor health and injuries, which in turn took a heavy toll on his physical condition. Then one day, his friends used a dump trolley to rush him to the hospital again.
If anything, Brother Wei’s story is an indictment of our social welfare system.
Then there’s the story of a 72-year-old lady surnamed Wong. Mrs Wong and her 77-year-old husband had to take care of her 99-year-old mother who suffered from serious dementia.
Mrs Wong used to send her mother to a private nursing home, only to find that she was forced to wear a straitjacket throughout the day. Shocked and distressed, Mrs Wong took her mother home and looked after her on her own.
However, her husband was very insistent on not applying for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) because of the social stigma attached to it, thanks to the rhetoric of our Secretary for Labor and Welfare Law Chi-kwong.
As a result, these three Hong Kong citizens, who are living entirely off their “fruit money” and disability allowance, had to scavenge and seek help from food banks constantly in order to get by.
All of these ordinary citizens are at the receiving end of our social injustice and unfair system. Worse still, they are far from being the isolated cases, nor are they the last victims of our unjust system.
Their stories have suddenly reminded me of what the late Peter Townsend, the “founding father” of poverty studies, told me when he received his honorary doctorate degree at the Hong Kong Baptist University in 2005: “Many people have cashed in on studying the poor, yet unfortunately, those who have been studied just remain as poor as ever.”
Sadly, Professor Townsend has proven to be right about it.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 15
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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