Hong Kong needs clear strategy in war on poverty

A growing wealth gap and proposed rise in the minimum wage highlight the current inequality, and the public is looking for action from the government

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 9:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 11:13pm

It seems coincidental that the city’s wealth gap and minimum wage made headlines separately over the past week. But it says something when a proposed HK$3 rise in the hourly rate amid serious income inequality pleases neither workers nor employers. Meanwhile, government efforts in helping the poor still leave much to be desired.

Subject to further approval, the statutory wage floor will be raised by 8.69 per cent to HK$37.5 per hour from May. Although the percentage will be the highest since the wage law came into effect in 2011, the hourly rate can hardly sustain a decent living. This income group usually comprises low-skilled workers such as cleaners and security guards. They could have opted for the dole and strained our welfare system, but chose to earn a living instead.

According to an Oxfam analysis of official wage figures, the city’s income inequality in 2016 was found to be the worst since records began 45 years ago. However, this was challenged by Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong. Responding in his blog to what he described as “misunderstandings and false commentaries”, the former associate professor in social work at the University of Hong Kong argued the study should have focused on figures after tax and government support. He also dampened hopes on higher welfare spending, saying the hefty rise this year is unlikely to be repeated.

Whatever the true numbers, poverty is a blight on Hong Kong

Regardless of whether inequality is the worst or not, the wealth gap is undeniably a serious problem. Law may feel it is necessary to clarify some misunderstandings. But by focusing on flaws in the study and help currently available, the public may feel that the government is trying to play down the problem.

Indeed, Law’s clarification on tax and subsidies affirmed that the government has a role to play in narrowing the wealth gap. Instead of dwelling on concepts and methodologies, it would have been better for him to elaborate on his strategies to combat poverty.

Over the years, successive governments have sought to address the wealth gap with different approaches, the latest being the “poverty line” set by former leader Leung Chun-ying to help identity those in need of welfare. The public looks forward to seeing more concrete measures from the chief executive and Law on this front.