Old women scavenging for their family's sake

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2007, 12:00am

Study reveals 'very sad' tale of elderly who slave away to earn HK$30 a day

An elderly woman wakes at 7am and works until 2am to earn about HK$30 collecting cardboard. She takes only a few hours break to sleep in the early afternoon.

This is a fairly typical portrait of an elderly 'scavenger' who makes a living collecting used cardboard and newspaper, according to a study of 96 such elderly people.

The groundbreaking study, commissioned by the Council of Social Service, found that 56 of them lived with their families and scavenged to help support family members.

'We used to think the elderly scavenged to support their own living, but we discover that many have to support their children, who earn little and are jobless,' said Vivian Lou Wei-qun, a Chinese University assistant professor in social work who headed the study.

'Some have mentally ill children. It is very sad,' said Ms Lou, who specialises in elderly policies. Aged 60 and above, with the oldest being a 90-year-old woman, the subjects were found at recycle waste-collection points in six districts and were interviewed between August and December last year.

More than half of them scavenged daily, with eight toiling for eight or more hours every day. Most earned between HK$100 and HK$500 a month.

Ms Lou said poverty was the main reason for their work, with many being forced into it because they did not qualify for Comprehensive Social Security Allowance (CSSA) as they lived with their children. Only 13 of those in the study received CSSA payments.

Some have assets that exceed the HK$34,000 CSSA limit, while others have to scavenge to pay medical bills.

Ms Lou said among the most important findings was that most of the elderly scavenged to support their families.

She described the elderly as leading a 'pathetic' life, in which they find no rest or fulfilment but only toil under harsh conditions to help support their families. Eighty-five per cent were women.

'It may be related to females being more devoted to helping their children,' Ms Lou said. 'Some can't afford three meals a day because they have no money.'

In one case, a woman eats fruit thrown away by shops.

Ms Lou said the impact of scavenging on the elderly was great, with some unable to stand up straight.

Council chief executive Christine Fang Meng-sang recommended the government improve the social security system to allow elderly people who live with their family to apply for the CSSA independently, as well as raising the asset limit for the elderly to HK$68,000.

One elderly woman, asked what her plan for the future was, said: 'I will pick up cardboard until I die. Many say I will pick it up until the day I die. We need money to live.'

There is no official estimate of how many elderly scavengers there are in Hong Kong.