'I won - but welfare stigma puts me off'
Kong Yunming says her court victory was about finding closure - she would rather work than be considered a 'leech on government'
She may have won her seven-year court battle to be eligible for social security, but Kong Yunming does not plan to accept government welfare just yet.
"I still don't want to be on Comprehensive Social Security Assistance - the discrimination and stigma that comes with it is too great. If I can help it, I won't go down that road," said Kong, who yesterday won her fight to allow non-permanent residents over the age of 18 to claim CSSA, Hong Kong's catch-all welfare payment.
Kong's local husband died the day she arrived from the mainland on a one-way permit in 2005. She was immediately made homeless as the Housing Authority reclaimed her husband's flat.
Kong spent her first year in Hong Kong living in homeless shelters and sometimes sleeping rough, while she worked as a stand-in security guard, earning an hourly salary slightly above HK$10 in the days before the minimum wage, earning her roughly HK$2,000 per month.
The government rejected Kong's application for CSSA in 2006 because she had not lived in the city for seven years. While some recent arrivals have been granted CSSA on a discretionary basis, Kong was not and instead embarked on the long journey of seeking a judicial review, which ended in a Court of Final Appeal victory yesterday.
"The biggest blow was my husband's death, and then having nowhere to live," Kong said. "I was at the end of my tether, or else I would not have applied for CSSA."
Now aged 64, Kong moved into a public flat three years ago, and earns HK$40 per hour handing out flyers. To avoid the stigma of welfare, Kong plans to keep her job for a year, after which she will be eligible for the old-age living allowance of HK$2,200 per month.
Her fear of discrimination is well-founded. Social welfare organisations have long warned that older people especially were reluctant to claim benefits, and the government announced in September that it was looking at ways to remove the stigma attached to CSSA as part of a strategy to combat poverty.
Internet comments about the ruling suggest there is a long way to go. "Why do we need to pay taxes and feed these types of people?" wrote one Facebook user.
Nelson Chow Wing-sun, a professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong, said his biggest worry was that the ruling would deepen the divide between the mainland and Hong Kong.
"The judgment will spark more animosity. It will make Hongkongers more resistant towards accepting new immigrants," he said. "In fact, you can already see that happening today, after the judgment came out."
The Liberal Party protested against the judgment yesterday afternoon. The party said the approval process for new arrivals applying for CSSA should be more stringent than for permanent residents.
Some 10,000 new immigrants were granted CSSA on a discretionary basis last year, out of 200,000 total CSSA cases.
For Mary Suen, who arrived in Hong Kong last year, Kong's case brings hope of a social safety net should her husband no longer be able to support them and their eight-year-old child. Some HK$4,000 of her husband's HK$10,000 monthly earnings went towards rent, she said.
But like Kong, Suen is acutely aware of the stigma of welfare.
"I have joined community centres and made some friends. I don't want people to know of my situation," Suen said. "They may think differently of me."
Kong can sympathise. "Who would want to claim HK$1,000 in welfare money each month while being despised and discriminated against for leeching off the government? If [new immigrants] could find work, we'd all prefer to work," she said.
Kong said the case yesterday had been about finding closure rather than becoming a welfare recipient: "I am now no longer a new immigrant."