SZE Lai-shan has to handle all sorts of phone calls in her job as community organiser for the Society for Community Organisation (SOCO). But she is always unnerved by one type of caller. 'There was one man who sounded so desperate; he told me he had three kids and his wife was coming down from the mainland to join him,' she recalls. 'Then he asked whether a family like his could get $15,000 a month in social security payments without having to work. Before I could answer him, he just exploded and said I was helping mainland bums to cheat the system.' Ms Sze has had to deal with other abusive callers as well. Some attack her simply because of her mainland origins and accented Cantonese. 'Some ring me and scream, 'You're helping mainland immigrants because you're one of them',' she says. 'Of course, I do feel for them because of my own experiences, but I'm doing it because I know it's the right thing to do.' Before moving to Hong Kong from Fujian province in the early 1980s, Ms Sze had completed primary school in her hometown. But in Hong Kong she had to start from Primary Four, with children three years younger than her. Not surprisingly, she had difficulty making friends. 'I could get along well with my peers but I never managed to strike up lifelong relationships because of the cultural and age differences,' she remembers. But being an immigrant in the booming 80s turned out to be an auspicious turn for Ms Sze: the influx of newcomers then was still a trickle and the mainland contingent made up a comparatively small proportion of Hong Kong's population. For many who followed in Ms Sze's footsteps in recent years, however, life in Hong Kong has been tough. While simple parodies of mainland immigrants as backward and badly dressed ah chaans are long gone, they are painted these days as impoverished spongers coming primarily for welfare handouts. This letter by 'a group of Form Six students' to the Post in March illustrates how some people see them today: 'We are shocked by the constant demands from some shameless immigrants. These immigrants come to Hong Kong and contribute nothing, yet they take our tax money. In order to receive more financial subsidies, some of them have more children. They are parasites inflicting damage on our society,' it said. Discrimination has heightened with Hong Kong's economic woes. When the Government announced in September that an extra $1.5 billion was needed for additional social security payments, many locals took a negative view of the 150 mainlanders entering Hong Kong each day. 'Negative sentiments prevail most among people from the lower classes, because they see the immigrants as competition for welfare resources,' Ms Sze says. Shen-hua (not her real name) has been just one of the targets. In January last year, she moved with her daughter to join her husband in Hong Kong. Before coming, she quit her job as a nurse and closed her beauty salon in Guangzhou. 'With my professional skills I thought I would be able to make a decent living here, but clinics rejected my [mainland] nursing diplomas outright,' she says. Even more devastating was having potential employers hang up on her when she rang to apply for jobs, a reaction she blames on her accented Cantonese. Because of her ignorance of labour protection laws in Hong Kong, she was also deceived after landing a job paying $6,000 a month. While employed as a cosmetician last year, she was required to improve not only the appearance of her clients but to mop the floor and take out the garbage. The public domain offered no respite. Shen-hua remembers not only being cheated while shopping for groceries but being simply ignored by sales people. Acknowledging that they do treat mainland customers differently, some shopkeepers, however, argue their behaviour is justified. 'They [the mainlanders] just hover around the shelves, picking up each and every thing without any intention of buying,' says a sales assistant in a boutique in Shamshuipo, home to many newly arrived immigrants. Local shoppers who leave empty-handed, however, seem to receive different treatment. So how do sales staff differentiate between their customers? 'It's the way they dress,' the sales assistant says, refusing to comment further. Wei-ming knows first-hand how it feels to be treated differently from others. Upon arriving in Hong Kong eight months ago to join her family, the 17-year-old, who speaks almost flawless Cantonese, was placed in Form Two classes in a Band Five school - a demotion of three grades. Worse still, she was tormented by her classmates. 'They would deliberately ask us [mainland students] humiliating questions. 'One actually came to me with his passport and asked mockingly whether I knew what a BN(O) was,' she says. At SOCO, Ms Sze declares that even though the culprits and the victims are both Chinese, the treatment accorded mainlanders amounts to racism - a form of discrimination not covered by present laws on equal opportunities. In addition to the absence of legal protection, Ms Sze blames government policies for placing them in an even more vulnerable a position: all immigrants have to wait a year before having the right to obtain social security assistance; seven years - the length of time all migrants are required to wait until they can acquire right of abode in the SAR - before they can apply for public housing; and seven years before they can apply for a job in the civil service. 'They are not judged on their needs or their ability,' she says. She also takes immigration officials to task for repeatedly declaring they have no say in deciding who comes to Hong Kong for settlement. 'Officials often stress they have no power in scrutinising applications for the one-way permits, which makes it sound as if they are being forced to acquiesce,' she says. 'This makes Hong Kong people think they are being tricked, and that we are receiving the worst people from the mainland.' Tempers also were raised when the Commissioner for Census and Statistics Frederick Ho Wing-huen said Hong Kong would house 8.2 million people in 2016 and that mainland immigrants 'were the main source of population growth'. Locals were driven into a frenzy as media reports - and subsequent callers to talk-back radio - expressed fears that the SAR would be swamped by immigrants. Populist interpretations, however, tend to ignore facts. For example, Director of Social Welfare Andrew Leung Kin-pong last year revealed that newly arrived immigrants accounted for only six per cent (or about 9,600) of the then 160,000 social security cases. Considering about 171,000 people arrived in the past seven years, the proportion of immigrants who filed for such assistance is lower than six per cent. And according to latest figures released by the Census and Statistics Department, about 64 per cent of the 35,963 over-15 mainland immigrants arriving in Hong Kong in 1996 have finished secondary education while 9.2 per cent have university or post-secondary education. Eileen Hung To, who left Shanghai for Hong Kong a decade ago, is one mainland immigrant who completed her secondary-school and tertiary education in the SAR. She also entered a job with few difficulties. 'The language problem was a hindrance,' she remembers, but being discriminated against was not an issue. Ms Hung, who now works as a laboratory technician at the Margaret Hospital in Lai Chi Kok, says: 'We were living in a rented room in Lai Chi Kok, but we encountered no harassment from the landlord or people next door. 'There's only a handful of people who harbour ill feelings against mainland immigrants.' Still, Ms Hung agrees she may not have experienced any discrimination simply because of the circles she moved in. Many more mainlanders, however, have been treated unfairly and have found it difficult adjusting to Hong Kong. But while social workers clamour for more government assistance for mainland immigrants, a Social Welfare Department spokesman says new arrivals should not be singled out. 'The problems they face could be tackled by the services we already have, like for the elderly, for young people, or for dealing with marital problems,' she says. But she adds that district officers could organise activities to suit the needs of their clients, including specially designed activities to help immigrants get used to their new living environment. Social workers also feel let down by politicians, whose say in the Legislative Council as well as in other statutory bodies could help sway the Government's policy undertakings. Blasting legislators and party leaders for distancing themselves from the problems she and her colleagues face, she says, however, 'mainland immigrants are like poison for them in elections. 'Who's going to risk losing grass-root votes by standing on their side?' She, for one, is only too aware of the hypocrisy evident in Hong Kongers' attitudes towards mainlanders. While locals embrace 'patriotic causes' in raising funds for flood victims on the mainland, or pat themselves on the back when mainland athletes win medals, immigrants who come to the SAR are treated like second-class citizens. The contradiction also disturbs Shen-hua. 'We're all Chinese after all,' she says. 'How come Hong Kong people are so willing to help people [living on the mainland] stranded by natural disasters, while they turn a blind eye to those who come here?' If she could turn back the clock, Shen-hua says she would not have made Hong Kong her home.