On a blistering hot Sunday afternoon in mid-June, Central’s D’Aguilar Street is brimming with hot and hurried tourists and city dwellers. A stifling smog is expelled from double-decker buses directly into the lungs of hapless twenty-somethings, who turn any which way into the nearest air-conditioned building and proceed about their days in cool oblivion.
In another everyday occurrence, and one that is overlooked by many, men and women in their sixties, seventies, and above push overloaded trolleys of trash up steep slopes for just a handful of Hong Kong dollars, hardly capable of covering the cost of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
A nation that prides itself on high living standards is dealing with a growing problem – one that has been swept under the rug for far too long.
Just last year, one in six people in Hong Kong were of retirement age. Put into perspective, this means that one in six people lack what Professor Wallace Chan of the Department of Social Work at CUHK defines as social mobility. He explains that this pressing problem requires a large-scale overhaul, “to improve both the community and institutional care of the frail elderly”.
Professor Chan is not alone in this opinion. KC Chan, a lecturer in Social Work, also at CUHK, points to the lack of retirement facilities, a perceived over-reliance on the private sector, and the flawed Mandatory Pension Fund (MPF) scheme, which he cites as providing only 23 percent of people with the means to retire comfortably.
Chan points us in the direction of a worrying statistic: “The public and the mandatory private pensions together only provide around 30 percent of the pre-retirement income”, which is far less than the average gross replacement rate of OECD countries offered by these two pension pillars for average earners (59 percent as of 2009).
This leaves many to question: how can a city that offers so many the opportunity to prosper leave its elderly without the ability to support themselves or, indeed, to voice these issues independently?
The need to highlight a social issue as pressing as elderly rights is undoubtedly fundamental. But discussions about the people in question can be rendered equally as transparent as the legislation that fails to protect them if the elderly themselves are not given a platform to speak.
On the same hot and humid Sunday afternoon, we meet Mrs Lai*, whose name has been changed at her request. Rather than claiming to represent an already underrepresented group, Mrs Lai speaks for herself:
“I worked my whole life, but still I have to do this. Now I am too old for another job but I need to make money to support myself. This is the only thing I can do but it is very hard. Sometimes I collect cardboard, sometimes cans. I make HKD40-HKD50 per day. Every day…two, maybe three hours? My back aches, my feet hurt, every day … It’s really tough…”
Mrs Lai, like so many before her, has fallen through the cracks of the welfare system.
Government provisions do, however, exist to help some of those in need. In a recent policy address, Chief Executive CY Leung stated that the Old Age Living Allowance has benefitted 40 percent of the elderly population in Hong Kong. In order to claim the allowance, however, persons between the ages of 65 and 69 must earn less than HKD7,090 as a single person’s wage.
The Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) scheme is intended to serve as a safety net providing assistance to those most in need. However, it omits so many of the people it has been designed to aid. Those who live with family members, for instance, are ineligible to claim the fund, which has long been referred to as fruit money.
The Social Welfare Department declined to comment on the matter, but pointed us in the direction of a document entitled Hong Kong: the Facts – social welfare. The document contains the following statement.
“A wide range of community care and support services, including district elderly community centres, neighbourhood elderly centres, social centres for the elderly, day care centres/units for the elderly, enhanced home and community care services, integrated home care services, home help service and support teams for the elderly, are provided to enable elderly persons to stay in the familiar community for as long as possible.”
So, if the government can’t, or won’t, prioritise the protection of the rights of the ageing, who will?
One organisation that has taken that upon itself is Hong Kong’s Society for Community Organisation (SoCO). The group began to focus on elderly rights in 1990 in their fight for the redevelopment of public housing. SoCO then went on to establish the Elderly Rights League, a band of sick and elderly Hongkongers who are organised to fight for their rights.
Ng Wai Tung, a community leader within SoCO, sees the restrictions on applications for CSSA as “violating the elderly right to welfare,” with the loose legislation in direct opposition to basic universal human rights principles.
At the beginning of this year, SoCO launched the “We Live” photography exhibition of “Grassroots Elderly in Hong Kong”. Ng explains that the purpose of the exhibition was to highlight “a public concern for their [the elderly’s] history, living wisdom, raising the poverty issue, and [to explore] different aspects of their lives”.
But should the responsibility lie solely in the hands of NGOs?
Professor Chan points to a shifting social climate and its impact on the rights of the elderly population. “Elderly persons in Hong Kong often perceive themselves as a burden to their family caregivers,” he says.
It is the decline of this structure, for Chan, which has become inherently problematic. He says the shifting priorities over recent decades are an unwelcome byproduct of Hong Kong’s growing economic prowess, commenting, “In the past, the elderly persons were better supported by the family. Nowadays, elderly persons have longer life expectancy [81 and 87 years for men and women respectively], and family members are no longer able to take care of them due to the pressing needs to make a living and changing expectations in the living standard.”
The furtherance of respect for the elderly is particularly pressing in light of recent stories of elderly abuse. Coconuts recently reported a case of alleged abuse in a nursing home in Tai Po, where elderly patients were filmed being stripped naked and bathed in open view of nearby buildings.
Professor Chan remarks, “I think recent reports just reflect part of the situation in Hong Kong. The care in private old age homes is not satisfactory generally. The abuse case reflects lack of respect.”
One third of Hong Kong’s elderly population live in poverty, and many are dependent on the Social Welfare Department (SWD) for medical and old age care. However, according to KC Chan, these provisions scarcely suffice.
He explains, “As of March 2015, there were a total of 31,151 people, mostly elders, registered with the SWD for subsidised long-term care beds.”
However, the average waiting time is 37 months. In total, Chan continues, “The number of subsidised beds only accounts for 36 percent of the long-term care beds in Hong Kong.”
In a society driven by privatisation and consumerism, those on the CSSA scheme lack what KC Chan terms the “negotiating power in choosing their residential care choice”. He continues, “this inevitably will lead to sub-standard care and occasionally abuse in the care facilities, due to unsatisfactory worker-to-client ratios and poor training amongst service staff.”
On one thing, at least, these diverse voices seem to agree:
“It seems that the existing political system does not support a more comprehensive reform on the welfare issues of elderly persons in HK. [The only option] is to secure retirement protection.” – Prof Wallace Chan
“What is the government doing to help us? Good question!” – Mrs Lai
“The government should play a more active role in participating, managing and monitoring these important social policy issues relating to life quality of older people in Hong Kong.” – KC Chan
“If the HK government really intend to support universal right to retirement scheme, it should go for the legislation direction.” – Ng Wai Tung
A weakening social structure, a burgeoning elderly demographic, and a hastening consumerist tendency have all contributed to a poor system of support for those who have shaped the society we live in today.
“The fact is that […] we cannot rely on the private market to make improvements in the care provision. It’s time for the whole society to reflect on what standard of care we think is acceptable for elderly persons in Hong Kong”, says Professor Chan.
To us, these sound like words to live by.
*Quotes by Mrs Lai have been translated from Cantonese.
All photos by photographer Lam Chun Tung for SoCO.
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