HK$8 meals served with a side of job coaching at this Hong Kong lunch club with a difference
- Four centres run by French Chamber Foundation aim to help unemployed people and low-income workers find new jobs and improve their lives
Pang Chi-shing is tucking into a meal of preserved vegetables, pork and rice with considerable gusto.
“It’s great,” says the 56-year-old divorcee with two children. “The food here is suitable for everyone, and you’re free to go back for as many helpings as you want.”
Pang, who earns little more than HK$3,000 (US$382) a month juggling odd jobs as a security guard and an online watch salesman, is one of about 20 diners at an exclusive dining club, where an entire meal costs just HK$8.
Open five days a week, all year round, the French Chamber Foundation’s Lunch Club serves about 50 meals a day to low-income workers and jobless people at centres in Wan Chai, Kwun Tong, Mong Kok and Tsuen Wan.
These are much more than low-priced canteens. The club’s main goal is to provide members job coaching, language classes and a boost in self confidence to help them get new jobs and improve their lives.
The foundation was set up by The French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hong Kong, which has more than 1,000 members from over 750 businesses.
The first Lunch Club opened in Wan Chai in 2015, and operations have expanded to four centres, with meals prepared by the charity Food Angel, which sources surplus ingredients from the food industry.
Lam Ka-keung, project manager of the Kwun Tong centre, has helped members find 60 job placements in industries such as security, hygiene and maintenance over the last two years.
He says the members’ stories reflect the volatile nature of employment in the city, and that even well-educated people sometimes hit a bad patch and need help.
Lam gives the example of a recent new member who had been a general manager at a major company.
“Here was a highly educated man whose firm was listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange,” he says, explaining that the 51-year-old lost everything following a series of unfortunate events. “He was really down, but low-skilled jobs were not a good fit for him.”
With coaching, the man found work with a property firm where he is enjoying his job and adapting well.
Servane Delahaye, the foundation’s general manager, said potential Lunch Club members are assessed over a month following their first visit for social workers and coaches to learn their needs.
Once they have a full membership, which lasts six months, they get help with job applications and referrals, and staff even accompany them to interviews. Membership is renewable.
The Kwun Tong branch presently has more than 360 members, and Lam says their average salary is just HK$3,000 per month. Most are living well below the poverty level of HK$19,900 per month for a household of four.
The government’s latest Poverty Situation Report, released last November, revealed that a record 1.38 million residents live below the poverty line, 25,000 more than in the previous year.
Cheung Yuk-ling, 40, a mother of two who is currently jobless, goes to the Kwun Tong lunch club.
“I was referred for a part-time cleaning job that paid HK$50 a day, but it was just too much work for too little pay. I resigned after two days,” says Cheung, whose husband is a maintenance technician who earns about HK$14,000 a month.
She likes how she can take her children, aged 9 and 14, to the centre with her.
“A lot of unemployed mothers bring their children here,” says Cheung, who still hopes to find part-time work to supplement the family income.
Delahaye says that at this end of the economic scale, people are often in and out of work, which is why the foundation focuses on providing employment guidance.
“The lunch brings people together, but that enables them to make new contacts and talk to our staff, who include social workers and counsellors,” she says.
Philanthropist Cecilia Cheung, the foundation’s honorary president, says: “I think an equally valuable part of the Lunch Clubs is that they give members a feeling of community and respect.”
She has been with the foundation for two years, and among the events she helped introduce are monthly group birthday parties at the centres for everyone born that month.
“It’s a big celebration and shows members they are respected as individuals,” Cheung says.
Among the Kwun Tong centre’s recent successes is Lam Wai-wa, 73, who arrived last year after losing his job as a security guard.
The centre’s staff set up an interview for him at a residential estate in North Point, and thanks to his experience, he got the job in November at HK$500 a day.
“I work 10 days a month, or whenever they need me to cover a shift,” says Lam, who hopes to be offered full-time work soon. “The other guards often call in sick.”
Lam, whose wife and adult son are in mainland China, feels cooking for himself is a waste of time and so is enthusiastic about having his meals at the Lunch Club.
“It’s hygienic, convenient and economical,” he says “It also has great service.”