'Tell us what our food really costs'

Asylum seekers demand answers from agency as sit-in protest over cheap meals enters fourth day

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 February, 2014, 3:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 September, 2015, 11:46pm

Protests at the offices of the International Social Service continued for a fourth day yesterday as asylum seekers continued to seek answers from the welfare provider and the Social Welfare Department about the true cost of food allocated to them.

Asylum seekers are claiming that up to 5,000 refugees are being short-changed by about HK$300-HK$400 worth of food per person per month.

Their union is asking the ISS and the Social Welfare Department, which has contracted ISS to provide food to asylum seekers, to provide a price list and expiry dates for the produce.

ISS said yesterday that any comparison between the price of the products it supplied and retail prices could be explained by the inclusion of special foods such as halal meat and basmati rice to meet asylum seekers' cultural and religious needs.

A department spokesman said no irregularities were found in the documentation, and declined to provide a price list, saying it was a confidential document that could be released only to the monitoring government department and bureau.

The spokesman said the price differences may be due to vendors not being allowed to change the price of food through the period of a contract. Therefore a "direct comparison of the average budget for food for each claimant and retail food prices in the market [which fluctuates] is not appropriate."

"No, it's completely appropriate to do a comparison," said Robert Tibbo, a human rights lawyer and non-executive director of Vision First, an NGO that has been aiding the union.

The food items, he said, were products not normally on the market in Hong Kong, but, he added, there were generic items such as rice and vegetables where a comparison with Hong Kong food prices would be possible.

"I don't see why the Social Welfare Department wouldn't make this list public," said Tibbo. "These are food items for Hong Kong's most vulnerable populations," he said, adding it was in the public interest to know if the government or refugees were being taken advantage of.

Since 2006, ISS has provided HK$1,060 of food to each refugee each month. The amount increases to HK$1,200 this month.

"The failure by ISS-Hong Kong to disclose food pricing particulars is yet a further indication of discrimination brought against asylum seekers as well as a lack of accountability by the government," said Mark Sutherland, a human rights lawyer.