From behind dark glasses, her voice hushed and shaky, Wu Kam-ping tells how she has been left with nothing but her children and a small nest egg after years spent in the garment factories of Hong Kong.
Now 75 and blind, Wu speaks for thousands like her when she says: "All I want is a universal retirement protection scheme which can make my life more stable and secure."
The Kowloon Tsai resident lives on a HK$1,395-a-month disability allowance and some money from two children. "I feel totally insecure. I am worried my children will not be able to help me one day," she says.
Even the proposed means-tested HK$2,200 monthly old-age living allowance - debate on which resumes in the finance committee tomorrow - will not help her. She is ineligible because she already receives some assistance and has HK$230,000 - her hard-earned savings that are strictly for emergency use.
"My savings are my treasure," Wu says. "I often fall ill and I don't know when I will get sick again. Sometimes I suffer pains in my leg or get a bad cold. I saved up for a rainy day. If I splash out it will be gone. I can no longer work to save up again."
Hong Kong, which turned from an industrial to a service economy over the past few decades, has been criticised for a lack of proper retirement protection. Tourists gawp at the old people bent double over their trolleys laden with cardboard. Newspapers around the world carry shock reports of Hongkongers too old to work and now living in cage homes.
At the same time, the city is famous for its people's longevity and notorious for having one of the widest income gaps in the developed world. With the ageing population, the debate over retirement protection is now urgent, say lawmakers and activists.
The proportion of the population over 65 is projected to rise to 30 per cent of a total of 8.47 million people in 2041, from 13 per cent of 7.07 million people last year, according to Census and Statistics Department figures.
It means that by 2041, every 1,000 workers will support an estimated 645 dependents - children under 14 and people over 65, double last year's figure of 333.
If domestic helpers are excluded from the workers' figures, then by 2041, every 1,000 workers will be supporting 712 children and old people, against 352 per thousand last year.
In Japan, where the problem of an ageing population has hit first and hardest, there are 565 dependents per 1,000 workers. In European countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Britain, every 1,000 workers support more than 500 people.
The median age of Hong Kong's population will rise from 41.7 last year to 45.1 in 2021, 47.7 in 2031 and 49.9 in 2041.
To show the government's commitment to addressing the problem, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is to lead a task force on social security and retirement protection under the revived Commission on Poverty.
It will be up and running by the end of the month, and Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung will serve as vice-chairman to Lam.
Hong Kong has adopted a three-pillar model for retirement protection: private savings, the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) and social security, which includes comprehensive social security assistance (CSSA), the token old-age allowance, or "fruit money", and the disability allowance.
People can claim only one of the three.
The CSSA provides money for people in financial need, irrespective of their age, but many of the recipients are the poor elderly. Payments include a standard payment plus other allowances - for example, for rent.
The old-age allowance is just HK$1,090 a month. Everyone over 70 is eligible to receive it without a means test. It is means-tested for those under 70.
The disability allowance allows elderly people with health problems a little extra cash.
Cheung acknowledged recent calls for a universal pension scheme, an issue Hong Kong has been debating on and off for decades.
"The huge financial implications aside, this is complex and controversial, in particular if it would require contributions by participants," he said.
"Our community has not come to a consensus as to whether it should go down that route."
That is not the view of concern groups, which claim people have made it clear they want a universal pension.
"There is already a consensus on the need for a universal retirement protection scheme but the government is dodging the problem," said Au Yeung Kwun-tung, an organiser of the Alliance for Universal Pensions.
Both the alliance and the Civic Party have come up with schemes that would pay everyone over 65 HK$3,000 a month.
Louis Ng Fat-kwong, honorary associate professor in the University of Hong Kong's department of statistics and actuarial science, said such a scheme would need to be funded by government, employers and workers. "A tripartite contribution system can make the scheme go on and on, while a scheme solely funded by one side won't work," he said.
Ng, who helped draw up the Civic Party's proposal for a universal scheme, said it should not be means-tested because some people were loath to undergo a means test.
"Our calculations suggest the non-means-tested scheme is feasible even in the long term," he said.
But Baptist University economist Mo Pak-hung is not so sure.
"If a universal pension scheme is introduced, some people may no longer work hard, and may save less and invest less in their children," he said. "Their productivity may drop. If their calculations are projected from the current economic growth, they could be totally wrong."
Mo said that while actuaries made estimates based on figures, "economists must also consider how a policy may change people's behaviour".
"Only a means-tested scheme can be sustainable in the long run and the money can thus go to those really in need," he said.
University of Hong Kong chair of economics Richard Wong Yue-chim wrote in his blog in May: "It is worth noting that universal schemes are particularly costly, not only because everyone is eligible but also because Hong Kong's population is ageing rapidly and the growth in the total population is slowing. This means more recipients will need to be supported by fewer contributors to the schemes."
He added: "A non-means-tested universal old-age social security scheme would be an economic disaster for Hong Kong.
"A modest payout under the means-tested scheme to help the poor who are in poverty through no fault of their own in their old age can be the only sensible policy choice for Hong Kong."
Law Chi-kwong, from the Commission on Poverty, said: "A universal pension scheme will only be sustainable if we legislate on the frequency and amount of the contribution to be made by each party, say, over the next 40 years. Otherwise we may run into trouble some day.
"From overseas experience, when the cost of the pension scheme goes up, the government may propose increasing the share of contribution from each party. But such attempts have usually been in vain. It would be very difficult to convince people to contribute more."
Law, an associate professor in HKU's department of social work and social administration, said: "The universal pension and MPF schemes are different choices and have their own merits and demerits. Our society has to mull it over."
In the face of growing calls for a universal retirement protection system, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said last week: "What we should do is have a responsible scheme. Any scheme we pledge to the elderly must be sustainable day after day, and year after year, and this is a rather big financial challenge for us."
The Central Policy Unit, he added, was carrying out a poll of 10,000 households to find out more about people's financial circumstances, including retirement plans.
"We hope the preliminary results will be out by the year-end. We are very willing to publish the findings and discuss with the community how to set out a good retirement protection system," he told lawmakers last week.
On retirement protection, Leung said that besides the proposed HK$2,200-a-month allowance, he wanted to improve the MPF scheme and, in the long run, study the impact of the ageing population on public finances in order to ensure better planning.
Dr Kwok Ka-ki, of the Civic Party, said the Central Policy Unit had already conducted such studies but the reports were nowhere to be seen.
Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong wants the government to study the feasibility of universal retirement protection as soon as possible to allow the elderly to "lead a life with dignity".
The mood among pan-democratic legislators is not positive.
"The government will not set out a universal retirement protection scheme, as shown by its refusal to scrap the means test for the proposed old-age living allowance," Democratic Party lawmaker Sin Chung-kai said.
For Wu, sadly, the hardship looks set to continue.
Pensions alliance proposes scheme that involves raiding MPF
The Alliance for Universal Pensions has drawn up a plan for retirees it says will cost no more than the government's existing schemes. Everyone over 65 would receive HK$3,000 a month (based on 2010 prices). This would be financed from funds currently used to pay old-age allowance and CSSA to over-65s, and an injection of HK$50 billion in seed money.
Employers would contribute 2.5 per cent of each employee's salary, and would reduce their monthly contributions to employees' MPF funds from 5 per cent of salary to 2.5 per cent. Companies with annual taxable profits of more than HK$10 million would pay a levy of 1.9 per cent of those profits. Employees' contribution to MPF funds would also be halved, to 2.5 per cent of salary per month, and they would pay 2.5 per cent as a pension contribution.
Based on the government's 2010 population projection for the period to 2039, the alliance says its scheme would be sustainable at least until then, by which time it would have accumulated reserves of HK$116.7 billion. By 2039, the government contribution for the year would be HK$32.1 billion out of total contributions of HK$81.06 billion. All the figures are based on 2010 prices.
The projected government contribution is close to the HK$37.8 billion annual contribution the government itself estimates it will have to make by 2041 to sustain the existing old-age allowance and disability allowance and the proposed old-age living allowance. Its estimate, which is based on 2012 prices, does not factor in spending on CSSA payments for the elderly on the grounds that a realistic long-term projection of demand for CSSA cannot be made.
Civic Party has plan for universal pension scheme
The Civic Party has drawn up a plan for a universal pension based on calculations made by Louis Ng Fat-kwong, honorary associate professor and teaching consultant in the University of Hong Kong's department of statistics and actuarial science. It would pay out HK$3,000 a month to everyone over 65.
Employers and employees would each contribute 3 per cent of salaries to a pension fund managed by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.
In exchange, their compulsory contribution to the MPF would drop to 2 per cent from 5 per cent. The government would then inject HK$50 billion (in real terms, allowing for inflation) once every five years into the pension fund.
"We expect that our proposed scheme can be sustainable even until 2060," party lawmaker Dr Kwok Ka-ki said. Had the scheme started last year, Dr Ng estimates the accumulated surplus adjusted for inflation would be HK$310 billion by 2060.
Topics: Old age allowance Elderly Pension