If you want to experience the cruelty and callousness of the so-called free market, try living as a street cleaner for three days. I did. It was a searing experience that seemed to last an eternity. Under prodding from the producers of RTHK's The Battle of the Poor Rich, I forsook my life of luxury, shed my smart suit and slipped into a street cleaner's garish overalls to begin an unforgettable reincarnation.
This article isn't written to recount my acute discomfort and humiliation, for it was mercifully short-lived. It is to depict a life unseen by unthinking bureaucrats, uncaring corporations and insensitive enterprises on whose radar the needs of the working poor never appear.
Over the past 10 years, the government, in rabid Thatcher-like fashion, has let its outsourcing game run wild - cleaning, clerical work and security have all been outsourced to the lowest bidder. While setting up a showpiece commission to fight poverty with one hand, it is creating permanent poverty with the other, rigidly adhering to its belief in the lowest-bidder principle, in disregard of other conditions beyond the bidding document.
Officials set the minimum wage for various job categories, thinking that this is a sufficient safeguard against worker abuse. No thought is given to raising the worker's productivity or offering incentives for adding value. As a cleaner, I was given only a big broom, a heavy metal cart to push, and a shovel - primitive implements in the technological age.
My service area was in Wan Chai, near the Convention and Exhibition Centre and along Lockhart Road where tourists congregate. There, kerbside drain openings and crevices were choked with cigarette butts and fallen leaves. But, because the government doesn't want to see any cleaner crouch down to pick up the litter - a preference it makes known to bidders, perhaps in fear that crouching cleaners might sully Hong Kong's image as a modern cosmopolitan city - a street that would normally take 10 minutes to sweep took a whole clumsy hour. Such is the ossified thinking of desk-bound bureaucrats who are detached from reality.
In the West, heavy-duty vacuum sweepers are standard street-cleaning equipment, good for raising productivity and wages. In Hong Kong, bidders win contracts because they keep equipment and compensation costs lowest, when they should be encouraged to upgrade their equipment and raise wages.
Outsourcing should never be thoughtlessly pursued. Consider the case of a cook who works at the first-aid unit of the Fire Service Department. He made over HK$10,000 a month in 2005. Now, after it has been outsourced, the same job pays him HK$4,800. His income has been more than halved in six years, a prime example of victimhood through a lack of incentives for improving basic terms and conditions. Who is creating the working poor? Who gets to pocket the difference?
During my three days on the street, I was refused entry to toilets in stores and restaurants. So I was forced to squat on the slippery floor, wet with vomit, in a public toilet. Inside, I met old 'Uncle Leung', who ranks even lower than I, earning the HK$21 government-set hourly rate for toilet cleaners, while I made HK$25 as a street cleaner. The market dictates that a street cleaner's job requires more muscle, without regard to the obnoxious nature of the work of a toilet cleaner. In Hong Kong, the more a job stinks, the less it pays, and toilet-cleaning is seen as a job for the old and feeble. In this, the market is wrong. Even if it pays more, there will be few takers.
In my case, the job pays just over HK$5,000 a month for nine-hour days, of which HK$1,300 went to pay for my caged bed. My 15 sq ft bed space worked out to HK$85 per sq ft, far higher than rental rates in Mid-Levels. Should the government stand idle over this twisted market?
My job as a street cleaner required me to get going at 5am from Jordan, as I had to arrive in Wan Chai by 6am, too early for the MTR or cross-harbour ferry. My only means of transport was the cross-tunnel all-night bus. But, alas, its fare is 30 per cent higher than ordinary buses. For workers who have to scrimp their way through each day, why can't all-night buses offer early users the daytime rate? After all, not all night riders are lounge lizards. A fare of HK$13.40 one way ate into my HK$50-a-day allowance; the same trip in the day costs HK$9.80. At current fares, I spent HK$19.10 a day on transport, including the HK$5.70 to get me home by ferry and bus. If I could pay the daytime rate for the all-night bus, my daily food budget would have gone up from HK$31 to HK$35.50, which would have left me enough for dinner at Cafe de Coral.
RTHK challenged me to find cheaper accommodation if I wanted to eat better. Ready to give up my 'luxury' bed space, I found a lesser 'luxury' going for HK$700. But the cluttered small room was mouldy, damp and smelly, with no gas or hot water. The inside was so dark that occupants find their way with torch light. I instantly turned tail. I'd rather have starved than lived in that rat hole. In a super-rich city, this is how the other half lives!
Five years ago, these HK$700 units went for only HK$400. Five years from now, occupants of the HK$1,300 units will probably migrate to the HK$700 ones. Luxury property prices are cascading down to the lowest rungs of society.
Then there is the quarrel over coins. The poor count every cent. Yet shops and eateries refused to accept my handful of coins, despite them being legal tender. This refusal robbed me of a better meal - the difference between HK$15 and HK$18 with my jingle of coins.
In outsourcing its services, the government sets the standards and sends the signals. The free market obliges. Harmony doesn't come from slogans, it comes from all players in the market being sensitive to the plight of the poor. It is one thing to be poor. It is another to be victimised by an unjust system. Insensitivity breeds inadvertent injustices.
Poverty is not a set of statistics. For three days, in-your-nostrils poverty, once so remote, became intimately mine. It still stinks, long after I have laid down my cleaner's tools.
Michael Tien Puk-sun is chairman of the international garment retailer G2000 and vice-chairman of the New People Party