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Sunday, Oct 25, 2020

Unemployment in Hong Kong soars, leaving workers from all walks of life struggling

Chef Wong Bing-kuen has been out of work since Chinese restaurant suspended operations last month. World’s most expensive city is ill-equipped to deal with high rate of jobless, lawmakers admit

Hong Kong chef Wong Bing-kuen, 62, visits one restaurant after another looking for a job during the day, and sleeps on the upper deck of a bunk bed at night.

Wong, a chef for more than 40 years, lost his job last month after the Ho Yin Seafood Restaurant at Laguna Plaza in Lam Tin where he worked suspended operations because of the coronavirus epidemic.

He says he has changed jobs about five times since last June, when the anti-government protests started, hurting his industry. The coronavirus crisis has just made the situation worse.

For more than a month since being laid off from the restaurant, Wong has visited almost all the restaurants along Nathan Road in Kowloon looking for a job, but to no avail.

“It is so difficult to find work these days,” he says. “No restaurant is hiring. They are only laying people off or closing down.”

Wong has lived alone since his divorce about 20 years ago, with his son living with his ex-wife.

He used to earn about HK$12,000 a month, but with no income after losing his job, he has moved into a hostel-style rental unit in Yau Ma Tei, sharing a room with two strangers, paying HK$1,500 a month rent.

Despite living frugally, and dipping into his savings to cover monthly expenses of some HK$5,000, Wong is worried about how long that can last.

“I have been a chef for decades, and I’m not young any more. This is the only job for me,” he says. “I hope the epidemic will be over soon and I can go back to work to support myself.”

The coronavirus has killed more than 3,500 people and infected more than 102,000 worldwide, mostly in mainland China. Hong Kong has recorded more than 100 cases, two of whom have died.

The contagion has worsened the city’s recession and left many jobless or having their working hours and incomes slashed.

Official statistics show the unemployment rate increased to 3.4 per cent in the period from November 2019 to January 2020 – the highest in more than three years, with 122,300 unemployed.

The unemployment rate in the consumption and tourism-related segment of retail, accommodation and food services sectors reached a three-year high of 5.2 per cent, while that of the construction industry increased to 5.7 per cent – the highest in nearly six years, according to statistics.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said the labour market would be subject to even more pressure in the near term because of the impact of the coronavirus on a wide range of economic activities.

Facing job losses and income cuts, many struggle to survive in the world’s most expensive city, where there is little support for the unemployed.

Leung Wai-Kwong, 66, lost his job in a transport company travelling between Hong Kong and the mainland city of Shenzhen in early February, after the Hong Kong government started requiring all travellers from across the border to be placed in a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

The containment measure, which took effect on February 8, has forced his company to suspend operations, leaving more than a dozen employees jobless.

Over the past month, Leung has only managed to work a few one-off, part-time delivery and cleaning jobs, and earned about HK$2,000.

He lives with more than a dozen strangers in a flat in Mong Kok, where eight people sleep on four bunk beds in the living room alone, paying a monthly rent of HK$2,000. Now waiting to receive the government’s Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA), Leung says he hopes to return to his previous line of work once the crisis is over.

He took the job a year ago, after living on CSSA of about HK$5,000 a month for two years, recovering from a painful right leg.
“It was not easy for me at my age to find a suitable job and live independently,” he says. “I had a plan for the future, but the epidemic has got in the way, and left me wondering where my life is headed.”

Hong Kong does not have an unemployment insurance system. The unemployed can apply to the Social Welfare Department for CSSA, which gives out monthly cash handouts to anyone who in financial need.

Statistics from the department show that the number of unemployed receiving CSSA has been increasing since last June, from 11,710 to 12,589 in January, up 7.5 per cent.

Peace Wong Wo-ping, chief officer of social security and employment of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS), says because Hong Kong has long had low unemployment, there is no mature system in place to support those out of work.

“Without such a system, when the unemployment rate keeps rising, grass-roots residents will face great challenges,” he says.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po announced a HK$120 billion relief deal in his 2020/21 budget speech on February 26, including a cash handout of HK$10,000 for all permanent adult residents, and relief measures for the labour market, based on the idea of “support enterprises, safeguard jobs”.

Earlier, the city’s lawmakers approved a HK$30 billion anti-epidemic fund on February 21, including one-off cash injections to retailers, food and drink service providers, transport companies, and others.

But labour unions say employees, unlike their bosses, have not received much direct help.

“Instead of employees, the majority of the support goes to employers in selected industries. It can neither support all enterprises nor safeguard all jobs,” says Carol Ng Man-yee, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

Among the government’s anti-epidemic fund is a HK$990 million special allowance for some 200,000 households living on such schemes as the working family allowance and student financial assistance.

But Ng says not all people who have suffered are from low-income working families.

A 59-year-old pilot was laid off by Hong Kong Airlines in mid-February, after working for the city’s third-largest carrier for more than three years. Asking not to be identified as he waits to claim unpaid salary, of more than HK$100,000 a month, the pilot, who has been flying for nearly 40 years, says he was sacked abruptly with no real explanation.

“I was aware of the financial situation the company was in, but how they handled it was terrible and insensitive,” he says.
He says he has no idea how the company chose who to fire, but suspects in his case his age played a part.

He says pilots can fly until 65, but as he is approaching 60 it will be difficult for him to find work in the industry. Given Hong Kong’s struggling aviation sector, he plans to look elsewhere.

Pro-business lawmaker Felix Chung Kwok-pan says the government hopes to support businesses so they do not close down and leave more people jobless, and says support is limited.

Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung says an unemployment fund will be better targeted to help the unemployed. He has proposed a HK$30 billion unemployment fund, and the unemployed can receive up to HK$16,000 a month – about the city’s median income level.

Both Cheung and HKCSS’s Wong are also looking into a long-term unemployment insurance system in Hong Kong. Cheung says such social infrastructure is necessary to safeguard people’s quality of life during hard times.

“Hong Kong has relied heavily on the market mechanism to operate on its own, but it is becoming increasingly outdated, as the city could undergo difficult times more frequently, including epidemics and social events,” he says.

“For those who are unemployed, they can’t wait long and still have to pay rent today or tomorrow,” he says.

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