Hong Kong’s poorest made almost 60 times less than the wealthiest in the first quarter of 2023, marking the widest income gap in the city in decades, a study by Oxfam’s local office has found.

Oxfam poverty
(From left to right) Oxfam Hong Kong’s Assistant Research and Advocacy Manager, Terry Leung, Director General Kalina Tsang, Director of Hong Kong Macau, Taiwan Programme. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In the first four months of 2023, the median monthly income of the poorest 10 per cent of households in Hong Kong stood at HK$2,300, 57.7 times less than the wealthiest 10 per cent, which earned HK$132,600, Oxfam Hong Kong said on Tuesday citing data from the Census and Statistics Department.

The overall median household income was HK$29,500 per month, marking a 1.7 per cent increase compared to before the pandemic.

The overall poverty rate reached 20 per cent in the first quarter, meaning more than 1.36 million people were living poverty in Hong Kong, the NGO said. The wealth gap showed that although the city had returned to normalcy following the pandemic, the path to economic recovery for low-income and high-income families was “sharply divided,” it said.

“Despite society returning to normal, the problem of income inequality is becoming increasingly serious. The slow recovery of low income families have sounded alarm bells for the whole society,” said Karlina Tsang, director general of Oxfam Hong Kong.

Poverty elderly
File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Oxfam’s study found that nearly 210,000 people – or 6.4 per cent of the city’s population with a job – were living in poverty despite being employed. More than 80 per cent of this group were employed in low-skilled jobs, with one in 10 workers in the retail, accommodation, and food services sectors experiencing working poverty.

The city reported a 3.1 per cent unemployment rate in the first quarter, which fell from 3.5 per cent in the preceding quarter. The government said in a economic report in May that unemployment and underemployment continued to improve, but Oxfam said on Tuesday that employment remained “precarious,” as some working in low-paid positions were laid off or dismissed after the pandemic.

The NGO said the widening income disparity was partly due to the loss of low-skilled jobs after the pandemic, pointing to a lower demand for cleaners. Some members of low-income households also lost their jobs as operations were digitalised in the post-Covid era, Oxfam said.

The government should adjust the minimum wage annually to catch up with inflation and offer better income protection, Oxfam said. A more generous minimum wage could also help the city attract potential labour force, it said.

The authorities should also promote the concept of a “living wage,” whereby people are paid enough to cover their basic needs, such as accommodation and urgent medical fees for them and their families, Oxfam said.

A woman stacks cardboards in Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“Before importing foreign labour, our organisation calls on the government to adjust the minimum wage, create jobs for the most disadvantaged groups, and offer incentives to support employment at the grassroots level,” Tsang said.

One potential incentives would be improving childcare services, the NGO said, which could allow women from low-income families, who were previously unable to join the workforce owing to their duties as caretakers, to find jobs.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.