Pro-establishment politicians on Friday floated proposals aimed at helping Hong Kong’s jobless and underemployed, including lowering the application threshold for welfare allowances, a day after Beijing’s top representative to the city signalled concerns over the high unemployment rate.
The intensifying calls for greater support for the city’s underprivileged amid an economy ravaged by Covid-19 come ahead of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s scheduled policy address on October 14.
Other suggestions from the camp include allowing workers to dip into their pension savings, the creation of a short-term unemployment relief fund, and handing out vouchers to boost consumption.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
Some workers could not apply in the past because their income surpassed the limit. But now, when their incomes have dropped ... their working hours don’t match that requirement
Bill Tang, of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions
Former lawmaker Bill Tang Ka-piu of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions was among those urging the government to do more to help the unemployed and underemployed.
Tang suggested officials relax the existing working family allowance scheme’s application rules by lowering the required number of working hours for households.
“Some workers could not apply in the past because their income surpassed the limit. But now, when their incomes have dropped to a level that fits the requirement, their working hours don’t match that requirement,” he said on a radio show.
Under the city’s welfare scheme, which was designed to encourage self-reliance and ease intergenerational poverty, eligible households meeting specific criteria can receive a monthly allowance that varies based on income.
Tang is asking officials to halve the scheme’s current requirement for a non-single-parent family to work at least 144 hours combined each month.
Hong Kong’s jobless rate remained unchanged at 6.1 per cent between June and August, the height of the city’s third wave of Covid-19 infections, but the number of underemployed residents hit a 17-year high.
The number of those without work rose by 5,800 to 248,300 between June and August, while the underemployment rate stood at 3.8 per cent for the same period, encompassing 149,200 residents.
In a Mid-Autumn Festival charm offensive, Luo Huining, director of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, visited underprivileged residents on Thursday, marking the first time in three years the central government’s liaison office had publicised such a community outreach effort.
Luo met an unemployed man at his tiny Sham Shui Po flat and asked his colleagues to help him find a job as soon as possible.
“Only if people have a job, can they have an income … and improve their lives,” Luo was quoted as saying in a press release from the office.
Commentators noted the political significance of the move on National Day, suggesting it showed Beijing was concerned about unemployment and housing problems in Hong Kong, and sending a message to local officials about doing more to address those core issues.
On Friday, Tang renewed calls for a short-term relief fund for the unemployed, a proposal also raised by other political parties, partly due to the strictness of the application requirements under the existing Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme.
“The anti-epidemic funds rolled out gave people the feeling [the government was] helping the employers and maybe some workers in specific sectors. But jobless residents are just asked to apply for unemployment benefits under CSSA,” he said.
He added that giving residents vouchers to boost consumer spending and help with daily expenses would help as well.
On the same radio show, pro-Beijing lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun called on the government to let residents in urgent need withdraw up to half of their own pension contributions under the Mandatory Provident Fund scheme.
The MPF, established 20 years ago, is a compulsory retirement plan that requires both employer and employee to each contribute 5 per cent of monthly salary each month, up to a combined HK$3,000. Workers earning less than HK$7,100 a month are exempted from contributing, though employers must still put in their share.
Local law stipulates people can only cash it in when they turn 65.
Tse said changing the related law would be very simple and only require a relaxation of certain rules.
“If we have to do it, we can do it within a month. So this is no excuse,” he said.
Ricky Tse Kam-ting, founding president of the Hong Kong Inbound Tour Operators Association, noted many of his colleagues wanted to get back some money from their MPF savings.
“They told me: ‘Boss, if you don’t let me get back my own contribution, I basically can’t survive’,” he said.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Head of Beijing’s liaison office visits Hong Kong’s needy in rare festival charm offensive
- Helpless in Hong Kong: low-income new arrivals from mainland China struggle with job losses, lack of support during Covid-19
- As Hong Kong police crack down on scattered protesters on National Day, ordinary residents fume over heavy security blanket
- National Day: Hong Kong’s leader vows to resist foreign pressure and leverage on Beijing’s strong support
- Poor in Hong Kong: life is hardest for the elderly, jobless and single-parent families living on a pittance