A coalition of 90 groups criticised the government yesterday for its plan to slash welfare payments by 11.1 per cent in line with deflation, accusing it of exploiting the poorest people in society. Dressed in black and sitting in front of crossed-out giant Chinese characters which read 'caring' and 'justice', dozens of representatives from social, labour and religious groups protested against the decision to lower Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) for about 260,000 families. They said the move was unfair in light of the plan to implement a civil service pay cut in phases, and negotiate with the business sector over the timetable for a rise in profits tax. Oxfam Hong Kong's executive director Chong Chan-yau said the government had not carried out any consultation, adding: 'Letting the poor shoulder the budget deficit burden is unjust.' Mr Chong said the government had promised to create a harmonious and caring society but its actions were violating its promises. He said the welfare cut would exacerbate class differences and deepen conflicts. 'Hong Kong is one of the worst places in the world in terms of the gap between the rich and the poor. Shifting the burden of the government's financial problems to the poorest is just unacceptable,' he said. The government has frozen CSSA payments until March. It is understood that the Executive Council last week approved in principle a cut from July, but it would re-examine the issue in a meeting tomorrow. The government has listed CSSA as one of its priorities in tackling the deficit. Welfare payments account for about 7.8 per cent of its expenditure. 'The government is always telling us to self-improve and to be self-sufficient,' said Lui Ngan-fung from a women's rights group. 'But many single mothers who are willing to study or get on career training courses can't even afford bus fares.' The coalition will write to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa urging him to meet its representatives and will petition the Executive Council tomorrow. The Society for Community Organisation will rally on Sunday to protest over the cuts. Hong Kong's wealth gap is among the worst in the world. According to internationally accepted statistics contained in the World Development Report 2003, it is 96th out of 111 countries and territories.