Hong Kong lawmakers met via video conference to discuss proposals for the sixth round of Covid-19 related subsidies on Tuesday, including how the funds might help the unemployed, the underemployed, and those on unpaid leave.

The latest version of funding includes a proposed one-off HK$10,000 payment to those who lost their jobs since the fifth wave began, have been unemployed for at least one month, and were not earning more than HK$30,000 a month before losing their jobs. This marks the first time the government’s relief fund will directly target those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

A dessert shop in Tai Wai. Under Covid-19 restrictions, restaurants are not allowed to open past 6 p.m. and can only offer takeaway. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP

During the remote meeting by the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee lawmakers questioned how the proposed HK$27 billion relief fund might benefit workers on unpaid leave. Doris Ho, the head of the Policy Innovation and Co-ordination Office, said they “still have a job” and such workers would be “better supported” through the anti-epidemic funds going to their employers.

Labour Constituency lawmaker Aron Kwok said many workers had asked whether those who were on unpaid leave, underemployed or doing temporary jobs would benefit from the new relief fund scheme.

In response, Ho said they hoped to “concentrate its resources” to help the unemployed, adding that others could be supported through “other means.”

“Those employees on unpaid leave, in my understanding, still have a job,” Ho said.

Doris Ho (right), the head of Policy Innovation and Co-ordination Office. Photo: Video screenshot, via LegCo.

Ho said that most citizens on unpaid leave were from the food and beverage industries, and that the anti-epidemic fund had already offered subsidies to business owners in those sectors.

Observations from the past year showed that the catering businesses’ desire for recruitment had remained strong whenever restaurants were allowed to fully reopen and the Covid-19 outbreak was stable, Ho said.

The official cited a drop in the the catering sector’s unemployment rate from around 14 per cent this time last year to around 5 per cent at the moment as supporting evidence.

According to Ho, “a more effective way” to help those on unpaid leave was to “help the employers” instead, “in the hope that they can keep their businesses alive, then the employees will also benefit.”

‘Other means’ for underemployed

Lawmaker Andrew Lam asked about the details surrounding the “other means” of support mentioned by Ho for underemployed workers or those on unpaid leave. Ho said that for the underemployed, there was the Working Family Allowance Scheme. Authorities had halved the minimum working hours required for the scheme at the beginning of the pandemic, Ho said.

Lawmaker Aron Kwok. Photo: Video screenshot, via LegCo.

According to the scheme’s official site, for a non-single-parent household to recieve the full basic household allowance of HK$1,000, family members must work from 72 to 132 hours per month and earn less than half the average household income, which is HK$17,900 for a three-member household.

Earlier on Tuesday morning, the pro-democracy group League of Social Democrats protested outside the Central Government Office that the government’s relief measures were insufficient to ease the financial burden of the poor.

The city is currently battling a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections, which has overwhelmed the public health care system. Strict social distancing measures are in place to try and stop the spread of the virus, with a number of premises forced to close – including bars, beauty parlours and places of worship – until at least February 24. Dine-in services at restaurants are banned after 6 p.m.

Hong Kong has reported 26,670 cases and 221 deaths since the pandemic began.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.