Hong Kong’s Cardboard Grannies

Miss Wong, 65, scavenges the streets of Hong Kong’s Sheung Shui area in search of disused cardboard to sell to local recycling plants. She starts her day at 7 am and often works until 9 pm, seven days a week. For her efforts, she receives about HK$41 (£3.60) per day. Wong is one of an estimated thousand senior citizens nicknamed “cardboard grannies” who collect and sell waste boxes and other scraps across nine of the poorest districts in the city. When the company Wong distributed promotional leaflets for closing down, she found herself unable to find other employment. With no savings, family support, sufficient pension or social security income, selling cardboard has become her only means of scraping by. “I ended up homeless because I didn’t have enough money to pay the rent,” says Wong. “Even a sub-divided flat costs around HK$4,000 per month and I didn’t have the money for that.” Cardboard grannies are one of the most visible indicators of Hong Kong’s struggle to support its rapidly ageing population. According to researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the city now has the longest life expectancy in the world. On average, men in Hong Kong live for 81.3 years and women for 87.3 years – beating other “blue zones” (regions with the oldest and healthiest people in the world) such as Japan and Italy.

However, any sense of pride in the world’s longest life expectancy is overshadowed by the fact that one-third of Hong Kong’s elderly live in poverty. Official figures from 2016 put the figure at 478,400 people aged 65 or over languishing below the poverty line, which is set at a monthly income of HK$3,800 (£345). For one of the richest cities in the world, with a GDP per capita higher than the UK, Germany and Japan, poverty has become an embarrassment. Public funds for the elderly are considered a pittance. The government’s Old Age Living Allowance is currently the most popular cash assistance, which offers a monthly payment of up to HK$2,600. Such handouts are often dubbed “fruit money” as they are too meagre to pay for anything else. Also, most of the subsidies are means tested, which many locals find degrading and a significant barrier to seeking help. Critics have been campaigning for a universal state pension paid out to all regardless of their income, but this has yet to materialise. “In Hong Kong, although many grassroots organisations have been fighting for a non-means tested state retirement scheme for over 20 years, the Hong Kong government refuse to provide it,” says Ng Wai-tung of the Society for Community Organization. “Currently, many elderly [people] in the city don’t have any pension scheme because they were working class, low-income workers, and they received less protection from the system.”

Supporting the rapidly ageing population is an ongoing concern, with the Hong Kong government estimating that the number of people aged 65 or older will double to 2.37 million in 2036, accounting for 31.1% of the population. This is coupled with a dwindling fertility rate and projections that the city-state is on track to lose 14% of its labour force over the next 50 years, meaning fewer working-age people to support elderly people. However, at present, the government’s coffers are abundant. In February the Hong Kong government announced an HK$138bn fiscal surplus for the year with the city’s fiscal reserves expected to reach HK$1.092tn. Many feel now is the time to address poverty. “We are fortunate as a city to have money and a budget surplus. We have to think out of the box because the issues around low fertility rates and longest life expectancy have risen so fast,” says Prof Paul Yip, chair of population health at the University of Hong Kong. “I don’t think the government has put aside much time to deal with it – we have to face the problems and respond to them promptly and while we have the money.”

In the Kwai Chung area, 67-year-old Miss Lan Tsz also collects cardboard to sell to recyclers, often working from 6.30 am to 11 pm, despite suffering from arthritis in her legs. She says her only immediate hope is avoiding government workers, who regularly confiscate her cardboard and belongings. “The environmental and food hygiene department comes and confiscates my cardboard twice a week,” says Lan Tsz. “They even try to resell it themselves.” Under existing laws, Lan Tsz and her peers may be prosecuted for obstructing public space or unlicensed hawking. In a much-publicised case last year, an elderly cardboard collector in Hong Kong was arrested by officers after she was caught selling a cardboard box without a license for HK$1 to a domestic helper. The arrest resulted in public outcry with the authorities eventually dropping the charges. The incident was widely condemned as evidence of the state’s failure to protect its older and most vulnerable people from poverty. “Although we understand the officers are exercising the law, the issue highlights a complete lack of respect for the work that these grannies do,” says Tang Wing-him, a ministry officer from the Hong Kong School of Poverty Caring. Tang says these incidents are not isolated. He recalls another recent example when the same government department confiscated a pushcart from one of the cardboard collectors for unlawfully occupying public space. The collector was then told that she would have to pay an HK$1,500 fine to get it back. Such incidents have left grassroots organisations determined to find workable solutions. “The government regards what the cardboard collectors do as picking up rubbish which they deem unlawful, consequently there is little to no protection regarding health and safety for them,” says Tang. “They don’t view these grannies as official members of the recycling industry. I am actively working to get their work and contributions officially recognised so that they can receive proper wages, better protection and dignity.”

Amid rising life expectancies, cities around the world are looking at how to tackle poverty among senior citizens through employment. One example is a 60+ employment centre in Jerusalem, which aims to provide assistance to those who depend on small pensions and have been forced to re-enter the labour force to supplement their income. By increasing awareness among employers about the advantages of workers aged over 60, the centre aims to prevent poverty, reduce ageism and better integrate the elderly in a productive and meaningful life. The desire to work and feel useful is a driving motivator for many of the cardboard collectors. “If I sit around and do nothing I will get ill,” says Lan Tsz. “As long as I remain healthy I will still pick up the cardboard.” This is coupled with a sense of pride in wanting to pay her way. “I don’t want to live on social security – I prefer to try and be self-sufficient. I have never taken any money from the government.” Tang and other community workers are calling upon Hong Kong’s government to officially recognise the cardboard grannies’ work in the recycling industry so that they can receive benefits, better protection and a working environment where they don’t have to live in fear of having their cardboard confiscated – or worse, arrest. “The government has to recognise the contribution that the elderly make in a rapidly ageing society,” says Tang. “My view is that the government has a responsibility to look after the retired population as a basic right. We don’t have a long-term vision to make Hong Kong a more age-friendly city. Structural changes in our society need to occur for there to be real change. Before we can have an age-friendly city, we first need an age-friendly government.”

Credit: Matthew Keegan for The Guardian, 24 April 2018.