Grinding poverty and lack of oppor­tunity for social advancement caused by economic inequality
have been facts of human existence since settled patterns of life began, about 10,000 years ago, and Hong Kong is no exception.

Most individuals involved in measures to alleviate poverty and counter social dis­advan­tage, both now and in the past, openly admit that they are motivated partially by a sense of guilt. Guilt especially affects recent arrivals in Asia from affluent, Western societies where comprehensive social welfare systems exist and most dom­estic labour has long since been outsourced to machinery.

Finance, wealth and ... slavery? Hong Kong one of Asia’s worst for forced labour

From Hong Kong’s mid-19th-century beginnings as a colony, those who wished to help ease the wants and woes of others had plenty of opportunity, and various philan­thropic initiatives were launched to aid the poor and downtrod­den.

The objects of their attention ranged from stray animals (perennially popular) to mui tsai (female child slaves) and women who were “rescued” from prostitu­tion by (mostly Christian) do-gooders and found alternative work. Many such women, however, soon ended up back in their former profession, which was often able to provide a better livelihood. Just how effective these undertakings were was widely debated.

Many period memoirs make it clear that a profound sense of conscience was a key motivating factor for charitable endeavour. Religious groups established resting places for sedan-chair bearers – another common object of well-intentioned pity – at various stopping points on The Peak and along other steep routes, where they could take a break from their all-weather work under shelter. Buckets of tea were provided and – inevitably – missionaries periodically lurked, ready to proselytise “the heathen” whenever the opportunity should arise. Charity seldom comes without strings.

Other well-meaning individuals – mostly Europeans new to Asia – flatly refused to use rickshaws and sedan chairs, considering it degrading to be carried or dragged about using another human as their beast of burden. Refusal to use such conveyances, and walk instead, was an act of free choice.

Then & now: slaves to tradition

Less free to choose were the rickshaw pullers, who still needed to feed and clothe their families; for many, carrying a heavy load was the only work available. Refusing to use a sedan chair or rickshaw materially helped no one, serving only to assuage the tender feelings of the poten­tial patron whose belly was already full.

Overpaying individual bearers helped salve the consciences of some, just as many present-day employers of domestic helpers overpay their employees to ease the guilt of having them around in the first place. Ultimately, though, over­compen­sation solved none of the wider problems of poverty and inequality of opportunity, only distorting the market for those unable to pay more than the established rate.

Initiatives born of guilt continue into the present day. Harrowing stories related by overseas migrant workers with whom they come into contact reinforces a sense of shame in the overprivileged, and moti­vates their desire to help wherever possi­ble. Except in cases of serious human rights viola­tions, few social activists seek to com­plete­ly change local circumstances – such as the “two-week rule” for migrant workers to find a new employer, which drastically limits local job mobility – that inexorably lead to routine exploitation of society’s more vulnerable members.

Today’s do-gooders – like their 19th-century forebears – continue to stick Band-Aids on society’s running sores until, eventually, they burn out, move on and are replaced by another cadre of well-intentioned newcomers.