CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 20 July 2019

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Retirement protection and poverty alleviation are two distinct issues

HONG KONG (SE): The government of Hong Kong is edging away from introducing a universal pension scheme for the aged and retired, but in mid-February it did launch a public consultation on the issue.

However, the consultation comes under the banner of the Commission on Poverty, suggesting that the government is confusing provisions for a decent life for people in their sunset years with the relief of poverty, whereas they are in fact, two quite separate and distinct issues.

As part of a response from the Catholic Church, a meeting of Parish Social Concern Groups held at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Shek Kip Mei on February 27 pointed out that a protection scheme should be extended to cover all senior citizens, so they all can live with dignity.

The meeting also stressed that a policy aimed at retirement protection should not be reduced to or confused with a poverty alleviation programme, as the two are quite different issues.

Representatives of Catholic organisations and experienced social workers analysed the various plans put forward by the government, as well as those from civic groups.

Christine Fang Meng-sang, the former executive director of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, told the Chinese language Kung Kao Po on February 22 that universal retirement protection is not only intended to alleviate poverty, but to prevent poverty, so that senior citizens can lead a dignified life with basic retirement protection.

She described it as being a social infrastructure for people in their sunset years, stressing that as a policy, it is as necessary for the development of a healthy society as public education and health services, which were introduced in 1970s to cater for the needs and development of the whole of society.

She said that the principle of caring for each and every member of society is treated as a highly important issue in Catholic social teaching, so welfare policies should not only be available to a particular group within society to which the label needy is attached.

She also stated that the responsibility of maintaining a retirement protection policy is the responsibility of the whole of society, not just the government.

Wong Yu-cheung, an associate professor at the Department of Social Work at the University of Hong Kong, said that the city needs a universal retirement protection scheme.

He stated that around 85 per cent of senior citizens in the territory do not enjoy adequate retirement protection, as most people have only saved around $300,000 to $1 million for their retirement—and this is nowhere near adequate.

He, together with other scholars, is promoting a plan in which a monthly allowance of $3,500 is distributed to all senior citizens and, in order to cover the costs to the public purse, they are proposing a higher corporate profit tax be imposed.

The bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, wrote a letter on February 25 to all parish priests, saying that adequate care for the aged in Hong Kong is an absolute necessity and a matter of social justice.

He quoted Pope Francis as saying that there are many people living on the fringes of society, fringes which are created by modern society itself. The pope then notes that it is those whose muffled cry is drowned in the indifference of the rich who are left to bear the wounds.

He asked parishes to pray that the government will be sensitive to the needs of those who are no longer able to work and urged everyone to take an active role in projects designed to care for the aged members of society.

The cardinal said the Church is concerned, because most retired people do not enjoy adequate protection. He hopes the government will make a thorough review of the retirement protection policy and introduce a real, universal scheme, which can concretely protect people against falling into the poverty trap.

Father Dominic Chan Chi-ming, the vicar general and the coordinator of the Parish Social Concern Groups, told the Kung Kao Po on February 18 that all citizens should be entitled to retirement protection and there should be no asset limit or any screening in the plan.

Father Chan said that while details can be teased out during the formulation stage of the policy, the social teaching of the Church clearly says that there should be basic protection for retired people.

He believes that Church organisations can take advantage of the consultation to let more people know about the Church principles, for example, by training catechists to introduce the topic into their education programmes, as well as encouraging Catholic people to take an interest in social issues and be sensitive to their responsibility as citizens.

Dorothy Lee Ching-man, the secretary general of the Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs, said during an interview on February 25 that as the compulsory Mandatory Provident Fund, which is jointly funded by employees and employers, can never provide proper retirement protection, the government should establish a universal retirement protection scheme as soon as possible.

She emphasised that retired people have the right to receive basic protection and it should not be regarded simply as welfare.

She also pointed out that as the stigma attached to the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme has discouraged many senior citizens from applying for it, she believes the government needs to come up with a proper universal retirement protection programme that is not means tested.

Although the government claims that retirement protection would be a financial burden on the public purse that would require a substantial increase in taxes, Lee said that she believes that the plan elaborated on by 66 scholars from 18 institutes of higher education proposed in November last year does include an effective proposal to ensure adequate funding.

She said that an extra 1.9 per cent on corporate profit tax would reap a significant income from large corporations that have annual profits of at least $10 million and, together with an injection of capital from the government, the suggested scheme is feasible.

The government has floated two proposals. One is to give protection to everyone without a means test or any limit; another is to only include low-income people with assets of less than $80,000.

 

But the government is crying poor, saying that both proposals involve huge expenses and it has reservations over any proposal that does not have an asset limit. The consultation ends on June 21.

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