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Thursday, Jul 09, 2020

Coronavirus: labour groups call for cash handouts to unemployed, say relief programme largely benefiting city’s business owners

Calls come as new unemployment figures paint dire picture for Hong Kong’s retail, accommodation and food service workers. Pro-democracy and pro-Beijing unions alike call for direct payouts to those put out of work amid coronavirus battle

Labour groups on Tuesday called on the Hong Kong government to deliver cash handouts to residents laid off or forced to take unpaid leave during the coronavirus outbreak, as new unemployment figures heralded more pain ahead for the city.

In an afternoon statement, the government announced the unemployment rate had increased by another 0.1 percentage points, to 3.4 per cent, from November 2019 to January 2020, the highest in more than three years.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-Kwong said the employment situation for the sectors encompassing the city’s retail, accommodation and food services industries remained particularly difficult, with their combined unemployment rate holding at 5.2 per cent, also a three-year high.

“The labour market will be subject to even more pressure in the near term, as the threat of the novel coronavirus infection has already caused severe disruptions to a wide range of economic activities lately, particularly the consumption- and tourism-related sectors,” Law said, adding that new government relief measures were designed to “minimise any negative impact on the labour market”.

The embattled government on Friday announced a HK$25-billion (US$3.2 billion) relief package for sectors hit by the virus outbreak, with travel agents, retailers and restaurants expected to get between HK$80,000 and HK$200,000. Licensed hawkers are to receive HK$5,000 as will low-income families already eligible for existing subsidies.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday said that package – expected to be voted on at a Friday meeting of the Legislative Council – could ultimately be worth HK$28 billion.

But at a press conference later in the day, the pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) criticised the government for directing the bulk of its help towards business owners rather than ordinary workers.

“In the eyes of the government, they can only see employers but not employees,” former lawmaker and secretary general of the confederation Lee Cheuk-yan said.

“The government is either incapable or heartless.”

Lee said cash subsidies for the jobless and the underemployed were much needed, specifically calling for a three-month allowance equal to 80 per cent of their previous salary, with a cap of HK$16,000. He added that those under mandatory quarantine should also receive an allowance, as their employers were not obliged to pay them during the 14-day isolation period.

At the press conference, Pang Hau-tung, 29, a worker at medium-sized Chinese restaurant group, said he was among those recently laid off.

“My boss first laid off the dim sum department, then all workers were soon told to take no-pay leave till the end of this month,” he said.

As he received a monthly salary of HK$21,000 before being laid off, he was not eligible to apply for the government’s low-income allowance and therefore set to receive nothing from the relief programme.

The situation is no better for the city’s hotels, Alex Tsui Hau-lai, chairman of the Hong Kong Hotel Employees Union, said at the press conference, with a total of 17 hotel groups ordering their employees to take no-pay leave.

In addition to calling for the three-month allowance, the confederation also urged the government to add the new coronavirus to the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance, so that workers at quarantine centres and hospitals, including medical staff, cleaners and security guards, could be compensated if infected during the course of their duties.

Calls for a cash allowance were echoed by the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions on Tuesday, which suggested a six-month stipend for the jobless in a petition presented to the government as well as interest-free loans for workers in need. It was not immediately clear what formula they proposed to determine the amount workers would receive.

Expecting the unemployment rate to climb even higher, the federation also suggested the government consider offering short-term job openings in the public sector and increasing the courses on offer at training centres to help the growing jobless population find new work.

Meanwhile, the Civic Party joined calls from across the political spectrum for the government to include a HK$10,000 one-time payout for all Hong Kong residents in the new budget to be unveiled next Wednesday.

The party’s leader, Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, said the government’s relief measures have left a “huge gap” between those who were promised special subsidies and the general public.

“This is why we thought by handing out cash to everybody, that could be the most effective way to help those people,” he said.

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