A vacant primary school in Kowloon is set to be a provisional work site for some 200 visually and mentally impaired people facing job loss following the planned relocation of a factory for the blind.
The current factory will shut down in two years and only reopen in Tuen Mun in 2024, while the alternative Kowloon site will allow former workers to continue operations during the period in between.
Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung made the revelation on a radio programme on Monday weeks after the factory’s move prompted opposition from workers and their families.
The controversy sparked criticism of what is perceived as government policy stagnation over employment and anti-discrimination measures for the disabled.
Founded by the Hong Kong Society for the Blind in 1963 in To Kwa Wan, east Kowloon, the factory has 55 employees and about 150 apprentices in its sheltered workshop. Most of the workers are blind while some have other disabilities, including dysgnosia – a form of mental impairment – and autism.
Last November the society announced that the factory would be shut down in 2021 and reopened at the Jockey Club Tuen Mun Home For the Aged Blind in 2024, which is about 35km away.
The land for the three-storey factory in To Kwa Wan will then be used to build a new and larger service centre for the disabled.
Due to limitations at the home for the elderly in Tuen Mun, the new factory will cut two production lines – paper boxes and sewing – and only keep one on the manufacture of filing tags.
But workers and their families said the society did not consult them over the move and provided no solution for the transition between 2021 and 2024.
Concerns were raised about job loss for workers in the factory sections to be made redundant, and also for those who could not make the daily commute.
“When I first heard about the move, I felt completely helpless,” said Sin Wing-sang, convenor of the Alliance Concerning Redevelopment of the Factory for the Blind, on the same programme.
“The factory’s manager never told us any detail about the move and our social worker only said our concerns would be conveyed. We were only told to wait and wait,” Sin added.
Cheung said: “One day before the Easter holidays [last Friday], I received a letter from the Education Bureau, saying that the SKH St John’s Primary School in Ping Shek Estate could be used as a provisional production house as the factory moves.”
In contrast, the Social Welfare Department, which is responsible for handling the issue, did not suggest any provisional venue for the factory when it met workers last Wednesday, Cheung added.
The 50-year-old primary school is set to move to another public housing complex, On Tat Estate, in September. It is a five-minute walk from Choi Hung MTR station.
“The location is rather convenient but we will have to further study if [production] machines can be housed in the primary school,” Cheung said.
Why would the government rather leave us unemployed or send us to day care centres to kill time?
Sin Wing-sang, Alliance Concerning Redevelopment of the Factory for the Blind
Sin welcomed the new offer but said he wished the government could be better prepared. “I hope authorities can find one more alternative and participate more actively in resolving the problem.
“Many blind people can support themselves and earn a better life through working. Why would the government rather leave us unemployed or send us to day care centres to kill time?”
Several listeners who called in to the programme, including a blind person called Peter, said many blind people were clever and capable, but the government failed to develop policies for helping the disabled find jobs.
“Vocational training for blind people has been seriously insufficient for years,” Peter said.
“The types of work for blind people have been the same for many decades ... Several service organisations in Hong Kong have been wasting their resources on entertaining the blind instead of helping them get employed.”
Cheung also slammed the factory, accusing it of hindering workers in their quest to be self sufficient by reducing its paid-employee headcount.
“The factory used to have some 300 paid workers and now it has only 55. The other 150 apprentices in the sheltered workshop are not considered employees, but service users. They are paid only HK$26.50 per day as an ‘attendance bonus’ and can earn about HK$1,000 monthly if their products are sold,” he said.