While Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen says the latest economic figures suggest signs of recovery, social workers say the experience of street sleepers paints a different picture. Many street sleepers lost their jobs on the mainland during the financial crisis and are still struggling to make ends meet, according to the social workers. 'We are very pessimistic. The many poor people in Hong Kong cannot see the fruits of the economic revival,' said Ng Wai-tung, campaign officer of the Society for Community Organisation (Soco). 'We have talked with many street sleepers, especially those aged over 40. They all say they cannot see any future at all.' Having served street sleepers since 1999, Ng said he could not agree with Tsang's remark in the Legislative Council last week that he was 'cautiously optimistic' about Hong Kong's economic outlook. Tsang said that the city recently recorded its first year-on-year growth in exports since the global financial crisis. Exports rose 1.3 per cent in November from a year earlier. Retail sales jumped 11.7 per cent. The jobless rate fell to 5.1 per cent from 5.4 per cent in April. The number of street sleepers registered by the Social Welfare Department fell slightly for a third month to 421 in November after reaching a record 440 in August. Ng said, however, that the figure was an underestimate. 'Everyone in the welfare sector knows that the real number is at least two or even three times that,' he said. 'To register a street sleeper, a welfare worker has to submit a four-page form detailing the person's information, including the names of family members and his or her former occupation. 'It is hard to complete the form with the street sleepers. Quite often they are reluctant to tell you their background. 'Also, the register only records street sleepers who make the streets their home for a whole month, while sometimes we can help move them into temporary hostels within seven days.' Wong Hung-sang, St James' Settlement's manager of street sleepers, agreed. 'Anyway, the number is meaningless,' Wong said. 'What we fear is that street sleepers will have no future if they can find no way to improve their lives.' Competition among the homeless for a place to rest appears to be fierce. Cheung Muk-lun got into a car accident one morning and was taken to hospital. As soon as he was released, he immediately returned to his spot in Sham Shui Po, for fear that he would lose it to another street sleeper. Both Wong and Ng found two common characteristics among the homeless. One is that many street sleepers had worked on the mainland for a long time but lost their jobs when the mainland's Labour Contract Law came into effect on January 1, 2008. The law offers more job security to mainland workers, as it makes dismissing them more difficult and guarantees severance pay of one month's salary for each year of employment. But along with the impact of the global financial crisis, the law led to the closure of many mainland factories with low profit margins. Census and Statistics Department data shows the number of Hong Kong people working on the mainland fell from the peak of 237,000 in the first quarter of 2005 to 218,000 in the third quarter of 2008. 'Some of these people, who were supervisors or even bosses of mainland factories, returned to Hong Kong but failed to find a job and are forced to sleep on the streets,' Ng said. He said the closure of building works in Macau during the financial crisis also led to a similar fate for many. The second phenomenon Ng and Wong observed is that many street sleepers are 'recurrent street sleepers' who make the streets their home whenever the city's economy suffers a decline. Ah Chung, a 37-year-old man with only a primary education, is one example. 'I started working when I was 17. The first time I slept on the street was in 2000, when I was fired as a Town Gas stove repairman,' Ah Chung said. He finally found a roof to live under after getting a job a year later delivering ice cubes. 'But then the company closed in 2008, and I was forced to live on the street again,' Ah Chung said. He said he injured his spine at work, making it harder to land a new job. With the help of Soco, Ah Chung moved into public housing in June last year and now lives on the dole. 'During my time on the street, I came across many people with the same fate,' Ah Chung said. 'We do not know if the economy is good or bad - we only know we always face the same hardship.' Tsang said on Thursday that improving people's livelihood had been his primary task and promised to actively consider measures to relieve the plight of low-income earners. Ng and Wong hope he will keep his word. 'The problem with street sleepers is that, while some are long-term ones because of various problems of their own, some are in fact short-term ones who would love to live in a home of their own but were unable to do so,' Ng said. 'We hope that the government can really help improve the economy so that it is easier for them to find a job.' 'It is really difficult for the poor people in the city,' Wong said. 'We can see that the prices of food, rent go up despite the downturn - we really have to find some cheap housing for the needy. For many people who earn merely HK$3,000 to HK$4,000 a month, it is really hard for them to have a roof over their heads.'