Lunch Club gives working poor cheap, healthy meals and helps them find better jobs

Canteen supported by French business group provides working poor with nutritious meals and offers them advice on finding better jobs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 March, 2015, 6:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 March, 2015, 6:15am

Just HK$10 for a healthy meal with job-matching and vocational training thrown in for free, the new hot-meal canteen backed by the French Chamber of Commerce serves lunches with extra benefits for the working poor in Wan Chai.

The Lunch Club canteen operated by the Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service opened its doors in January, serving hot meals of meat, soup and rice to the working poor, in hopes of connecting with the group and providing help in upgrading their skills and matching them with possible new employers.

"You have many low-pay jobs - cleaning, security, low-skilled office work - and how can we get all of them in the same place so we can engage and interact with them? Lunchtime - a lunch place," said Armen Ekmekdje, president of the French Chamber Foundation, set up last year by the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The foundation donated HK$700,000 to start the canteen.

Ekmekdje said the vision was not just to provide the working poor with a healthy but cheap lunch, but to help widen their connections and networks.

"The difficulties the working poor face in finding better jobs has a lot to do with the lack of exposure, contacts and connections," he said.

With 1,000 company-members, the French chamber could provide job-matching sessions, presentations and even training to these workers, he added.

"We are a business community, so we want to tackle the problem of the working poor," he said. "Many of our companies actually have problems finding employees ... so this could be a win-win situation."

The canteen, located on the second floor of the Baptist Oi Kwan's centre on Oi Kwan Road in Wan Chai, can serve up to 50 hot lunches each day from Monday to Friday.

Eligible workers - those who work at least 72 hours a week, have been unemployed for three months or less, are not on the government's Comprehensive Social Security Assistance and have a family income of 70 per cent or less of Hong Kong's average household income - can benefit from long-term cheap meals and the career services available.

"Actually, what we hope is to have the working poor find better jobs, so that one day they could even stop coming to the canteen," said service coordinator Raymond Chiu Han-man from Baptist Oi Kwan. The canteen serves as a platform to make connections and reach out to the working poor, who often struggle on their own as they refuse government social welfare.

"I save HK$1,500 a month by coming here for lunch and dinner - enough to pay a full month's rent," said security guard Ringo Chan Kwok-yee, 55, who lives in public housing.

Carie Kwok Chun-kiu, 55, cleans offices and homes for a living. Eating out would cost around HK$30 to HK$40, so she would sometimes just eat bread for HK$9. She earns HK$7,000 a month, with around HK$4,000 of it going to medical care for her elderly mother.

"The hot meal which comes with a very good soup was a big attraction from the beginning," said Kwok, who learned about the canteen through flyers given out in Causeway Bay. "But I got to know the social workers, who ask about my work and try to help me. It's nice knowing that someone cares and I'm not so alone."

Ekmekdje said he hoped to open another canteen by the end of 2015, and expand the project further to a total of eight canteens across the city in two years.