More than 140,000 Hong Kong residents will be newly eligible for welfare benefits distributed through the working family allowance scheme and food bank programme after the government eased the qualification criteria.
But labour and welfare minister Law Chi-kwong rejected repeated calls from unionists to introduce assistance for people who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of their economic situation.
“In this whole world, no country and no government has ever provided a non-means tested … unemployment benefit,” he said. “It’s very interesting that people in Hong Kong have been advocating such a scheme that no one else in this world will do.”
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Officials will present the changes to the Legislative Council’s panel on welfare services on Monday. Law expected the expanded programmes to run for a year beginning in June.
Underprivileged families are currently eligible for the family allowance if the household works at least 144 hours a month in total. The amount ranges from HK$500 (US$64) to HK$1,400 a month, depending on the number of hours and the family’s financial situation. Each child is also entitled to an additional HK$700 to HK$1,400 per month.
Given that many people are underemployed during the outbreak, the government decided to lower the threshold of hours to 72.
“Since the outbreak started at the beginning of last year, many people have been underemployed,” Law said.
About 56,300 households currently benefit from the scheme, Law noted. The changes will add 24,000 more households to the programme, at a one-off cost of HK$950 million.
The government is only helping the people with a job and not those without one
Lee Cheuk-yan, general secretary, Confederation of Trade Unions
Under the food bank scheme, which has been running since 2009, the government commissions non-governmental organisations to provide staples to underprivileged families and street sleepers. A one-person household and a four-member family, for instance, are eligible if they hold assets less than HK$99,000 and HK$264,000, respectively. Following the changes, the limits will be raised to HK$266,000 and HK$548,000. But candidates will continue to be subject to screening on the basis of their monthly wages.
In 2019, about 38,000 people benefited from the food bank scheme, and Law estimated that 120,000 more people will become eligible.
But Lee Cheuk-yan, general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions, hit out at the government for refusing to introduce an unemployment allowance.
“Why is it that while the people with a job are getting assistance from the government, those without a job are not getting it?” the former lawmaker said. “I don’t object to the latest changes but the absurdity is that the government is only helping the people with a job and not those without one.”
Lee called for an unemployment allowance capped at HK$16,000 a month, depending on the workers’ wages before they were laid off.
The city’s unemployment rate hit a 16-year high of 6.6 per cent in the final quarter of last year. The rolling quarterly jobless rate increased 0.3 percentage points for the three months to December 2020, from the period between September and November, the Census and Statistics Department revealed last month.
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