Many Hongkongers have been affected by clashes between anti-government protesters and police in the past six months. But those hit the hardest – the poor, disabled, elderly and ethnic minority members – often struggle in silence, as hard lives get even harder
Many around the world watched in alarm as Hong Kong’s university grounds became the new front line for clashes between police and anti-government protesters.
The two sides traded tear gas for bricks and Molotov cocktails, as campuses descended into smoking battlegrounds; makeshift fortresses for a hard core of demonstrators who vowed never to give in.
As the protesters barricaded themselves in, stockpiling food and protective gear, fears grew about how the stand-off might end. Foreign media speculated about a Tiananmen Square-style ending and many international students evacuated on the advice of their consulates.
Yet despite all the chaos, a handful of campus staff worked on. Among them, behind the barricades at the University of Hong Kong’s now near-empty campus, Mak Hon Kau dutifully continued his work, sweeping leaves and planting flowers under a hot sun in what was suddenly a deceptively serene-looking courtyard.
Mak, a contract labourer, is among the thousands of working poor in Hong Kong whose lives have been affected by six months of increasingly fiery protests that were sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill, but have since turned into wider calls for greater democracy in the territory, a largely autonomous Special Administrative Region of China.
“I’m worried working here could be dangerous, but I need the money and no one else will hire me at this age, what choice do I have?” says Mak, 68, who earns around HK$10,000 (US$1,280) per month. “I’m a contract worker, I don’t get to choose where they send me to work.”
Opinions on the anti-government protests have divided society and, in many cases, even families. But there is one thing few can dispute. In a city where one in five people, or 1.37 million, live below the poverty line of HK$4,000 (US$511) a month per person, life is becoming more difficult for Hongkongers like Mak.
The protests have hit the economy as tourists stay away and retail sales plummet. The city has entered a technical recession, with the economy shrinking 3.2 per cent in the third quarter.
Exports fell 9.2 per cent in October, while tourist arrivals fell 50 per cent in the first half of the month. Experts predict Hong Kong’s GDP will fall by 1.4 per cent this year.
The hardest hit are those on society’s margins: the elderly, disabled, ethnic minority residents and the working poor, as their long struggle to stay afloat in an environment of extreme inequality becomes even harder.
As restaurants close, events are cancelled and construction projects are put on hold, many workers in part-time and low-wage occupations have taken a direct hit; others have been impacted by rising transport costs as protests regularly cripple the MTR system.
Commutes from far-flung working-class districts into the city centre have become costly, complicated affairs. Many elderly patients have been either unable – or too afraid – to keep hospital appointments.
Among those whose already desperate situation has become worse is Ms Lee.
A former dishwasher in her late 60s who moved to Hong Kong from Guangdong two decades ago, Lee and her adult son sleep on adjacent beds in a tiny one-room flat in Shau Kei Wan, where meeting the monthly rent of HK$1,400 (US$179) has always been a struggle.
“I don’t work anymore, but if someone had a job I’d take it in a heartbeat,” she says. “My son has been dismissed from his job as a kitchen worker at a dim sum restaurant because business is bad.”
Lee lives on her savings and government aid. After paying the rent, she has only HK$900 (US$115) to spend each month – a struggle in a city where even the simplest of grocery shopping is likely to cost HK$100 (US$13).
“Food and rent are getting more and more expensive,” she says.
Samson Tse, a professor in the department of social work and social administration at Hong Kong University, says government statistics on poverty offer an incomplete picture.
“The government’s definition of the poverty line doesn’t tell the whole story or full complexity of the difficulties these people face,” he says.
The poor will struggle to stay afloat during these times of extreme duress, he says. “There’s no safety net, there’s no cushion,” Tse adds.
Around the corner from Ms Lee’s flat, a group of a dozen or so elderly people are lining up outside Ho Win Roasted Meat Restaurant, waiting for the free lunchboxes it distributes three times a week.
Ms Lo, in her 70s, has arrived three hours early to make sure she gets one of the boxes, which would usually sell for HK$28 (US$3.60). She will ration it into two meals to last her a full day.
“Of course, my life has been impacted by the protests,” says Lo, who finds it harder now to leave her one-room flat in neighbouring Chai Wan. “The tear gas makes me feel sick, and young people are getting hurt.”
Eugene Chan, a former district council candidate in Shau Kei Wan, says traffic disruptions caused by the protests have made it more difficult for the more than 30,000 elderly people in his area to visit the nearby Pamela Nethersole Eastern Hospital.
“The level of poverty is significant here,” says Chan, adding that most elderly residents in the area make less than the city’s median income – estimated at HK$17,500 (US$2,200) last year – and rely on the government-subsidised Elderly Health Care Voucher Scheme to pay medical fees.
“They keep their eye on the TV to check if there are traffic disruptions and whether minibuses and buses are running, and whether hospitals are still open for check-ups.”
POOR AND TRAPPED
Getting around is not just a problem for the elderly. With MTR stations closing early, cross-harbour tunnels blocked and closed, and buses diverted, there are few commuters who have been left unaffected. Yet the burden is greatest for those on limited incomes.
“I live in Kowloon and the commute to work is very difficult,” says a security guard, in his 30s, who had been outsourced by his company to work on the University of Hong Kong campus. “We’re paid HK$100 to 150 per hour, but this barely covers lunch and transport each day now.”
The guard supports the protesters, but has concerns for his safety. “The worst is working the night shift here – you don’t know if you could get hurt during the clashes.”
Tse, the academic at Hong Kong University, says labourers, construction workers and cleaners have been hit disproportionately. “These are people who have to travel for work from poorer neighbourhoods like Sheung Shui to Central, where they wash dishes, clean, do security work,” says Tse.
Such workers must turn up for duty or lose their jobs, he says, adding that not all qualify for the Public Transport Fare Subsidy, which covers 25 per cent of the transport costs for those who spend more than HK$400 on public transport in a single month.
For many Hongkongers, the scheme – which is capped at HK$300 (US$38) – is no longer sufficient.
A Nepalese entrepreneur who runs a bar in Lan Kwai Fong says many of the district’s Nepalese staff commute to Central from regions like Tin Shui Wai and Sheung Shui.
“They make HK$350-400 on a good night, but because the MTR is closed and bus routes have been blocked, they have to ‘bribe’ taxi drivers with HK$500 to get home. They are losing money every day, but can’t afford to lose their jobs either.”
Alex Gurung, a Nepalese-Hongkonger who has lived in Jordan for over two decades, says that with business opportunities evaporating, many in his community are moving back to Nepal or to Britain.
He, too, supports the protesters, but is worried about the future. “People are afraid if the situation goes on like this. If the economy collapses, we will lose our jobs and security in Hong Kong forever.”
Prakash Pun, president of the Hong Kong-Nepalese business association, says many construction workers have found themselves out of work as projects are put on hold due to the protests.
“We are encouraging them to find security work instead,” he says, adding that demand for security guards has increased as the protests have become more chaotic.
Many migrant workers are seeking temporary work as MTR security personnel. Sources say the work can pay up to HK$1,500 per day, but it entails risks such as being exposed to tear gas.
For other groups who still have their jobs, there are other concerns. Duffy Tam, a community advocate in his early 30s who lives in Jordan, Kowloon – one of the areas hit hardest by recent clashes at Hong Kong Polytechnic University – says he backs the protests, even though life has become more difficult for the city’s disabled population.
“My wife uses a wheelchair and had to work from home many days because she was unable to navigate sidewalks with broken and overturned bricks, as well as the road blocks,” he says. “Working from home is of course not feasible in the long run.”
LIVING WITH THE CONSEQUENCES
Experts say that for Hong Kong’s working poor, and those in low-skilled sectors, it is now even harder to move up the ladder.
“I’m all alone without family, so at least I don’t have anyone to worry about me,” says Mak, the HKU gardener, who has been working since he was 13. “Life has always been difficult in Hong Kong,” he adds. “I don’t have skills or an education, so what else can I do?”
Paul Yip, chair professor in social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, says the government has not done enough for those in need.
“If you go to any restaurant, they will tell you they are hiring fewer part-time and weekend workers,” Yip says, adding that as operations scale down “it will affect the life trajectory of these people”.
“The government has talked about giving money to tour guides or waiving certain business fees, but this is for company owners rather than ordinary workers,” Yip says.
He cites billionaire Li Ka-shing’s recent HK$1 billion donation to local businesses – in the form of grants of HK$30,000 (US$3,800) and HK$60,000 to various food and drink companies – as a better example of what could be accomplished “directly and efficiently”.
District elections last week, in which pro-democracy candidates made sweeping gains at the expense of their pro-establishment rivals, are a reason for optimism, according to Yip, who hopes the newly elected counsellors will do their part to help the city’s marginalised.
“There are a lot of people who commute to other districts to work because they can get paid more,” he says, citing a cleaner who lives in Sheung Shui but travels two to three hours each day to Central to make a few thousand dollars extra each month.
“In Hong Kong, lower-income people do not have bargaining power, so if district counsellors can create local employment, these people won’t have to travel so much.”
Yip points out that some restaurants allow the needy to use their kitchens in the morning to boil herbal teas and sell them, boosting not only their income but their sense of self esteem and belonging.
“It’s all win, win, win. So don’t tell me you can’t do anything for them,” he says.
After six months of protests, and few obvious signs things are about to let up any time soon, Yip and many others say Hong Kong is in dire need of a solution to its social problems.
“We are not talking about a revolution, we are talking about an evolution,” says Yip. He suggests the government and business sectors need to appreciate the contributions of sectors of society beyond finance and trade, and be more compassionate towards ordinary Hongkongers.
“This inequality is real, and it hurts. It’s not being acknowledged widely or tackled effectively. And at the end of the day we live with the consequences.”