THOUSANDS of middle-aged women are being forced to work as illegal hawkers because employers favour younger staff for jobs in service industries, unionists said yesterday. The Confederation of Trade Unions said half of those interviewed in a survey of middle-aged women said they had been forced to start hawking food and soft drinks to make a living. 'They are desperate,' said Elizabeth Tang Yin-ngor, executive secretary of the confederation, which conducted the survey. The women said they sold vegetables, soft drinks and barbecued meat buns from shopping trolleys or other makeshift stalls. 'They are not making a lot of money - only $30 to $40 a day. They sell while their kids are at school,' Ms Tang said. Women who had worked as sewing machine operators suffered in particular because so many textile factories had shifted across the border. Such women could not get new jobs because of age discrimination, she said. One 48-year-old former knitwear worker, who used to make $7,000 a month in a factory, said she had begun to sell sweet and sour snacks from a hand basket in Cheung Sha Wan public housing entrances a few days ago. 'I don't want to sit home all day. My children need the money to go to school. My husband's $7,000 salary is not going to support all five of us,' said the woman, whose three children attend university or secondary schools. 'I am frightened of being caught, of course. But we need to survive,' she said. Chan Po-lin, 44, said she had been considering becoming a hawker after she was told she was too old to sell bread in a bakery. 'The [employment] flyer said the shop needed a sales lady under 35. But I am 44. They refused to hire me,' Ms Chan said. The union said that 93.7 per cent of the 287 women interviewed felt they suffered from age discrimination. Eighty-four per cent said their jobs had been taken away by foreign labourers. Ms Tang estimated about 400,000 middle-aged women workers were unemployed, and 200,000 were working illegally as hawkers. The Urban Services Department said the hawker control unit was keeping a close eye on the problem.