Stuck in a small temporary apartment, Rainbow and her family are struggling to make ends meet in Hong Kong, where the number of poor households has skyrocketed during recent political turmoil and the coronavirus pandemic.
For much of the past year, Rainbow’s electrician husband left his 27m² (290sq.ft) studio each morning to look for work. Most of the time, he comes back empty-handed.
“Before the pandemic, he could work regularly 20 to 25 days a month, but now he only has four to five days of work,” the 43-year-old told AFP, asking to use only his nickname.
“The worst part is when he couldn’t find a job for a whole month.”
On paper, Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world.
Per capita incomes are around $ 48,000, roughly the same level as Germany, while the government has enviable reserves of around $ 116 billion despite a year of heavy spending linked to the pandemic.
The financial hub is home to more than 5,000 billionaires, according to the Knight Frank Annual Global Wealth Report, along with 280,000 other people worth $ 1 million or more.
But the city is also an illustration of inequality, and the other end of the spectrum tells a different story.
Over the past two years, the number of households earning just HK $ 9,100 ($ 1,170) or less per month has doubled to over 149,000, according to a recent government report.
Rainbow’s family is now languishing in that income bracket, up from HK $ 25,000 a year ago, a paltry sum that regularly exceeds global surveys of the most expensive cities to rent or buy property.
She capped her household’s daily food bill at HK $ 100, but does her best to make sure her two daughters – aged four and 18 – are still eating healthy.
“We adults will eat canned food while children can eat fresh food,” she said.
– ‘A harsh winter’ –
Hong Kong has entered the pandemic with its economy already in deep recession after months of huge and often violent democratic protests in 2019.
The protests were in part sparked by growing frustration with the city’s unelected pro-Beijing leaders, who have struggled to tackle inequality or resolve the acute housing crisis that has made Hong Kong one of the lesser places. affordable to the world.
An increase in the number of needy families over time has been particularly alarming as Hong Kong has few social safety nets, said Lai Hiu-tung of the Concern for Grassroots’ Livelihood Alliance charity.
“Most relief measures are short-term or one-off,” she told AFP.
Maggie, 35, is one of hundreds of families who have relied on twice-weekly food aid packages from Lai’s organization in recent months.
She lost her job as a saleswoman while pregnant with one of her two daughters and has not been able to find work since.
Her husband, who also works in sales, saw his income drop 30% during the pandemic to just HK $ 14,000 per month.
“His company policy has changed and he has received a lot less commissions. The retail industry is going through a harsh winter and a lot less people want to spend money on their purchases,” she said. declared.
She and her husband considered trying to work for food delivery platforms. But the competition is tight.
“Too many people are out of work, it’s not just you who want extra work,” she said.
– ‘It’s not too bad’ –
Hong Kong’s unemployment rate climbed to a 17-year high of 7.2% at the start of the year, although it has declined slightly since.
Critics say Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has prioritized cracking down on national security-focused dissent since the anti-democracy protests and lost track of livelihood and economic issues.
Law enforcement officials were promoted in a recent cabinet reshuffle, including former security chief John Lee who was appointed Lam’s deputy, a post that traditionally deals with livelihood issues.
Lam has defended her administration’s record in recent interviews, arguing that she had “not done too badly” and saying she planned to “push harder” on issues such as poverty reduction .
Her five-year term expires next summer and she has said housing will be a priority.
The average wait time for social housing rose to 5.8 years during Lam’s tenure, more than 12 months longer than when she took office in mid-2017.
Rainbow’s family, who have been waiting for over seven years, live in a transitional unit.
In many ways, they feel lucky. Before that, they lived in one of the city’s many rooftop huts – crumbling houses crammed into the roofs of other buildings.
But she says she can’t rest easy watching her meager savings run out with each passing week.
“I can’t sleep and I feel very miserable,” she said. “Everyone is feeling the pressure.