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Poverty

Hong Kong co-working factory aims to lift women out of poverty and revitalise city’s manufacturing tradition

Hatch in Kwai Chung allows women from grassroots families to find work making products like bedsheets and artisanal soap, with three local brands sharing the same working space

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 10:42am

Hong Kong may not be the manufacturing hub it once was, but one man is hoping to bring back its glorious past – with a new twist.

Francis Ngai Wah-sing, founder of the philanthropic organisation Social Ventures Hong Kong, has launched a 5,000 sq ft co-working factory space in Kwai Chung, serving dual purposes.

The project, named Hatch, not only aims to revive a “made in Hong Kong” culture for local companies, but also to lift low-income women out of poverty by providing job opportunities and training.

From sewing bedsheets to making artisanal soap, at least 10 women from underprivileged families have been employed since January to work for three local brands sharing the premises.

Although Hong Kong is no longer the industrial centre it used to be during its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, Ngai said manufacturing could still make a comeback.

“There are lots of idle industrial places in Hong Kong. Now some manufacturers are facing difficulties in mainland China with rising labour costs and more stringent legislation, so they are moving to Vietnam and Bangladesh. But why not Hong Kong again? We could do a manufacturing 2.0, but with a strong social element,” Ngai said.

Workers are given on-the-job training and are paid around HK$50 (US$6.37) an hour – well above the city’s minimum wage. They also have a flexible working schedule and can bring their children to the factory’s playroom while they work.

Each of the women also has a tailor-made career plan.

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“We want to use a job to empower these people, but what we really want to create is an exit for poverty until they can really stand on their own,” he said.

For worker Chen Huixiang, the opportunity has changed her life for the better.

“We have two young kids, so it’s been very difficult for me to find jobs that will let me take care of them,” Chen said.

“If it was only my husband that worked, we could barely scrape by. But now we can afford other things like tutoring classes for my daughter,” she said.

Almost half of their income goes to paying HK$6,000 in monthly rent for a 130 sq ft subdivided flat in one of the city’s poorest districts, Kwai Tsing.

But Chen had a lot more to gain than just extra money on the side.

“I’ve become a lot happier meeting and working with the people here. And the feeling when I know that someone in Hong Kong would buy and use the set of bedding that I sewed myself is incredible,” she said.

Chen sews products for well-known Hong Kong brand Airland, one of the local partners at Hatch. Founded in Hong Kong in 1966, the company has since relocated its factories across the border, where it produces air mattresses and other bedding products sold in mainland China, Australia and Canada.

Airland’s managing director, Linda Sze Li-lam, said it was important for Hong Kong companies to give back to society.

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“From a business point of view, moving operations down to Hong Kong doesn’t justify the cost, everything here is more expensive – the rent, manpower. But we’re doing this because we really do want to help empower these women,” Sze said.

The two other brand partners – one that makes artisanal soaps and the other an affordable food initiative – say that the co-working space has helped save costs and cut down administrative workload.

“For small businesses like us, rent is our biggest source of stress. Now I no longer have to work out of my home,” said Catherine Ho Hiu-yan, who makes and teaches the women how to make handcrafted bars of soap.

Although breaking even will be a challenge for corporations, the three brands believe a “made in Hong Kong” approach has potential.

One idea is for the three companies to join forces to produce a baby gift set, which will include items such as a patchwork blanket and handmade soap for babies.

Ngai, from Social Ventures, is confident that it would appeal to the Hong Kong market.

“We make it here, sell it here, with a strong Hong Kong story behind it, it’s more than just doing business,” he said.