Dec 29, 2011|
The small organization’s history can be traced back to the 1980s, which was a time of rapid change and turbulence in Hong Kong. Many factories relocated to the mainland and a lot of factory workers—most of them women—suddenly became jobless. Many of them were not willing to work in the service industry—for example, being a waitress or saleslady—because those jobs required few skills and the pay was significantly lower. The 80s were also rife with labor disputes, and the HKWWA was set up to settle such conflicts and fight for the rights of female workers.
Now that Hong Kong has morphed into a knowledge-based economy, most of the factory workers have long since found employment in other industries. Other issues have surfaced in the meantime, and the HKWAA has to tackle these new problems. While more women are joining the labor force, they are more susceptible to poverty despite their employment. According to the Census and Statistics Department, 1.5 million women joined the labor force in 2001. After nine years, the number has surged to 1.7 million, indicating a growth rate of 17 percent. Meanwhile, the size of the male labor force has shrunk about 1.2 percent. But the sad truth is that women still aren’t earning as much as men. In 2010, approximately 156,000 women earned a monthly income of less than $5,000, and only 81,100 men earned as little. It is not merely an issue of income equality between the sexes, because women’s poverty has the potential to snowball into old-age and inheritable poverty, especially when more working-class women have become the breadwinners of their families. “Most of the working poor are actually women. They go to work hoping to support their families, but they earn very little. Poverty will become cross-generation,” HKWWA coordinator Wu Mei-lin explains. “It is also foreseeable that when these women grow old, they will become low-income elderly.”
Nowadays, a lot of women opt for casual employment, working as promoters, construction workers and waitresses. These women don’t have a regular working schedule: they work long hours over a short period of time—but after peak seasons or busy periods, they are left with no work. Casually employed workers are not protected under existing labor ordinances because of insufficient working hours, making it very easy for employers to evade the responsibilities of providing them with basic welfare and protections. The workers also get no paid sick leave, annual leave, insurance or MPF contributions.
But a lot of women opt for this type of casual employment because they don’t really have a choice. Many working-class women (some of them single mothers) still have to take care of their families, and women with children can only go to work during school hours because the government currently doesn’t offer comprehensive childcare services. “Nursery services are only provided for children under age six,” Wu says. Also, a lot of the nurseries are closed during school holidays. “The government fails to provide services and, in a way, it helps employers [who] offer casual employment for these women.”
Since 2007, the HKWWA promoted a scheme called “Environmentally Friendly Housewives” that aims to develop new jobs in green businesses for working-class women. They now have a team of experienced cleaners who use natural products to clean homes; they collect waste materials and turn them into upcycled goods like clutches and shopping bags; and they have secondhand goods markets, allowing kaifongs to buy used goods at very cheap prices. It is a new venture with a lot of uncertainties, but the HKWWA is still trying to turn it into a profitable business—with the ultimate goal being to create as many decent jobs as possible for underclass women.
Support the HKWWA’s work by donating (money and materials) or volunteering. 1-3A, G/F, Tsui Ying House, Tsui Ping (South) Estate, 18 Tsui Ping Rd., Kwun Tong, 2790-4848, www.hkwwa.org.hk.