CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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A taste of poverty on World Day of the Poor

HONG KONG (SE): The Hong Kong Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs is organising a Seven-Day Poverty Experiential Programme to mark the first World Day of the Poor, an initiative introduced by Pope Francis at the ceremony to close the Holy Door and bring the Jubilee of Mercy to completion at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on November 20 last year.
On the same day, he released an apostolic letter titled Misericordia et Misera (Mercy and Misery), illustrating exactly how what is often considered extraordinary can overflow into everyday life.
While the pope says that mercy, which begins with understanding, can be a scarce commodity in our world, it is possible for it to be integrated as a visible component of everyday Christian witness and contribute to creating a world with a culture of mercy as its hallmark.
World Day of the Poor is to be marked on the nearest Sunday to November 20, which this year is November 19.
The Labour Commission says that although this is not a real experience of poverty, as people are not being asked to give up health insurance or other structured safety nets that the poor cannot afford, it wants to give people an opportunity to reach the first stage of getting some understanding, by getting at least a taste of the feeling of limited choice and deprivation of usual freedoms.
It ran similar campaigns during Lent over the four years from 2005 to 2008 when the government was deliberating on legislation for a minimum wage.
The commission believes that it is appropriate to mark World Day of the Poor and is running its campaign again in cooperation with parish social concern groups.
Angela Lee Ngan-kwan, the formation officer at the commission, says many Hong Kong people have a biased attitude towards the poor, blaming the victim for their own poverty by accusing them of not working hard enough to improve their lives.
Lee says that in fact many of them work really hard, but still cannot find a way out of their financial dilemmas because of the many unjust structural hurdles that Hong Kong puts in their way.
In saying that there is no concrete evidence to support the prejudiced view, the commission has taken up the challenge of exposing the lie and Lee believes that even an artificial taste of some of the consequences of poverty can help break the prejudicial attitude, by replacing it with some realistic understanding.
Basing its calculations on the current statutory minimum wage, the campaign sets a limit for weekly expenses for adult participants at $770, while children are asked to keep theirs under $330.
These small sums have to cover food, as well as telephone and travelling expenses, but exclude rent and utilities. Interested people can sign up online on the commission website.
Dorothy Lee Ching-man, the secretary general of the commission, explains the campaign as letting people know more about the plight of low wage earners and people on social benefits, as a way of building concern for the poverty issue and encouraging people to fight for the rights of the poor in the future.
Lee describes the ultimate aim of the campaign as encouraging people to set up a concern group on their own volition to agitate for family-friendly policies and standard working hours.
Lee adds that while the statutory minimum wage came into force in 2011, wages for unskilled workers never catch up with inflation and their monthly salary only covers rent, food and travel.
Those at the bottom of the pay scale can hardly afford to buy insurance, continue their education or shell out for extra-curricular activities for their children. 
Three opening ceremonies with a briefing on the campaign were scheduled, beginning with one at the Mother of Christ parish in Sheung Shui on November 12, then Star of the Sea in Chai Wan, as well as St. John the Baptist Mass Centre in Kwun Tong on November 19.
Each participant will be given a booklet in which they can record their expenses and in the spirit of golf, keep their own scorecard.
A debriefing session will be held afterwards for those who take up the challenge to share their experiences and present the difficulties they faced in keeping such a tight rein on the purse strings.
Andrew Tsang Hoi-lun, a social work supervisor at the Caritas Community Centre-Ngau Tau Kok, said on October 30 that high rental costs and the level at which inflation has been running demands an increase in the statutory minimum wage so that people at the bottom of the economic heap can improve their living standard. Tsang said the centre is concerned about the situation of people living in subdivided flats and they have been visited many times.
He described their financial burden as heavy, because their rental allowance struggles to catch up with increases. Tsang pointed out that the rent on a subdivided flat in Kwun Tong runs to $50 to $70 per square foot a month, so many families need to cut their basic daily expenditure on things like food, in order to pay the rent.
He explained that he believes the conditions that many people are forced to live in belie their human dignity and when a family of three or four is confined in a 60 to 70 square foot cave it is denied the right to satisfy many basic family needs.

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