Helping the poorest of the poor

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 November, 2010, 12:00am

Every night, while most of us are asleep, 80-year-old Hui Taz rummages through the city's rubbish, desperate to eke out a living.

She is a ragpicker, one of an estimated 300,000 in Hong Kong, trawling through our trash to find anything that can be recycled: old newspapers; cardboard boxes; plastic bottles; even copper from electrical appliances. But in this dirty business, competition is rife so Hui starts her shift at 1am, finishing just before 6am.

'At night, it's quieter and no one is snatching from you,' she said. 'In the daytime, you have to fight for the paper. It's scary so I go out late at night.'

However, after midnight, it's slim pickings of plastic bottles and bags, which are worth much less than paper and cardboard.

Seen by many as the poorest of the poor, ragpickers take their trolleys of recyclable goods to depots where they will receive a few dollars for their efforts, depending on the weight and the materials.

Since last July, Hui has been making the 10-minute walk from her public estate to the Kwai Fong recycling depot called Eco Sage. The depot is one of two run by a pair of young Hong Kong entrepreneurs who quit their jobs as environmental engineers to establish the start-up in 2005 and later expanded it into a social enterprise.

At the entrance on Wing Fong Road, depot worker Leung I-wa greets people bringing in their goods. She calculates the value of the materials after weighing them on a large scale and pays the clients in cash.

She is friendly, helpful and hard-working. She also happens to be a qualified social worker, who has been employed specifically to build relationships with ragpickers through her almost daily interaction with this disadvantaged group.

It is the only project of its kind in Hong Kong, according to St James' Settlement senior manager Josephine Lee. 'Ragpickers don't want to go to social services so this kind of depot will help us carry out better intervention,' she said. 'We want to use this natural atmosphere to start the relationship rather than ask them to go to the social services centre.'

Lee said ragpickers usually visit the depot several times a day, allowing a social worker to quickly build a bond with them in a casual setting.

However, the seed funding provided by the Kadoorie Foundation for the social worker will dry up next year so the depot is relying on Operation Santa Claus, organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK, to keep the project alive. The appeal will help pay for an emergency fund to help ragpickers with rent, food and medical expenses. It will also finance a project to employ up to six part-time workers to dismantle second-hand appliances before they are processed for recycling. 'With funding, we can give them the minimum hourly wage.' Lee said there is a taboo about receiving social welfare because children of recipients must sign a document stating they cannot support their parents.

Hui survives on about HK$1,500 per month, with HK$1,000 from the government's normal old age allowance and the rest from recycling. She has been a ragpicker since 1997; her four children are unable to support her because of medical problems or their own financial situation.

'Sometimes, she doesn't have enough to eat, but she won't tell you. Sometimes, she doesn't even have enough money to buy one egg,' said social worker Leung.

Hui said: 'To make your own living, you have to make your own effort. To rely on the government means I'm useless. So as long as I have my health, if I have more money it doesn't matter.'

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