Although apparently a multicultural, financially thriving city, Hong Kong society is divided, with a large and underserved population of lower-income residents. Many of these are not ethnically Chinese and don’t have the same access to services, in part because of lack of Cantonese language skills or higher education.
It was only in 2013 that the government acknowledged the large population of poorer residents, by setting a Poverty Line. In 2014, data showed that around 1.3 million of the city’s 7.2 million-strong population lived below this line. Considering the city’s wealth, (at the end of March 2015, the government recorded a surplus of HK$72.8 billion) this number is hard to swallow.
Statistics from the 2011 census show that there are 197,022 ethnic minority residents (excluding foreign domestic helpers who receive a different immigration status) in Hong Kong. Mostly, these residents are from India, Pakistan, Philippines and Nepal. Many have lived here for generations and hold a full Hong Kong Identity Card yet some still do not have the same opportunities as their ethnically Hong Kong Chinese counterparts.
Thus, low income ethnic minority families not only experience the problems associated with poverty, but they also face a wide range of additional challenges including language barriers, unfair education opportunities, employment difficulties, discrimination and consequent community integration issues.
These all feed into a vicious circle. Without money, families can’t afford private education or extra support for Chinese language, and without Chinese language skills, students often can’t pass their final exams. This means they drop out of school or cannot get a place at university, often leaving low-paid unskilled labour as the only employment option.
We’ve been watching this set of challenges for a number of years, looking to identify where we might add value and identify appropriate partners. Clearly, we have seen that access to education for these children is lacking and a critical need, hence the reason we stepped in to work with HK Unison this year.
HK Unison conducts research and works with the government to effect policy reform for ethnic minority Hong Kong residents. The organisation also handles individual cases, provides direct services such as one-to-one tutoring and offers varied assistance to parents. HK Unison accepts no government funding in order to retain independence
One significant change HK Unison brought about was to the public schools admissions system. Before 2004, among the 1,200 government-funded schools, only 7 primary schools and 3 secondary schools were willing to admit ethnic minority children, and they often had to wait 6 months to 3 years before being placed at all.
With the united efforts of HK Unison, parents and students, the government subsequently revised the School Places Allocation Policy for Primary 1 and Secondary 1, allowing ethnic minority children to study in mainstream schools.
However, schools were, and still are, often not equipped or welcoming to ethnic minority students since the majority of Hong Kong’s government-subsidised schools are designed for students whose mother tongue is Chinese, and discriminatory attitudes are rife. English-medium schools are also available in Hong Kong, however, if students want to integrate and have a better chance of getting a job, learning Cantonese is vital.
As we’ve seen throughout Asia, perhaps most notably with our projects in Mae Sot, Thailand, allowing ethnic minority children to access education at the earliest age possible means that they are in a much better position to thrive in Primary and Secondary school as they develop a feel for the language.
Until recently, kindergarten education in Hong Kong has been fee-based, so this, along with notices and interviews in Chinese, have been barriers to non-Chinese speaking students entering the system at the beginning and learning Chinese at a young age.
HK Unison has been a catalyst in pushing forward discussions on this subject, presenting research and findings to the public to affect policy change.
Last year, the government began to address these issues by, first, introducing a framework for a Chinese as a Second Language curriculum. Earlier this year, a first draft of the Free Kindergarten scheme was also introduced. There are, however, limitations to both.
With the framework comes no set curriculum (meaning no set exam), and the kindergarten scheme has been dubbed “fake free”. The advisory report shows that parents of about 40% of kindergarten children may still have to pay school fees.
Whole-day sessions won’t get full subsidies and those enrolled in kindergartens in private venues will most likely have to pay as the government subsidy won’t cover the full cost of rent.
Building upon this topic, we have identified several organisations and individuals looking at the broader issue of support to marginalised Hong Kong children (be they ethnically Indian or Hong Kong Chinese residents).
The Hong Kong poverty line is drawn at half the median household income according to household size. That means those who live below that are considered poor. Statistics from 2014 show that one-person households, with HK$3,500 or less, are considered to be living in poverty. For two-person households, the line is drawn at HK$8,500 income a month. For four-person households, that amount is HK$16,400 a month.
At least the government has started to acknowledge some of the challenges we face in Hong Kong. Unison is watching building good relationships with schools as well as the Education Bureau, conducting research relative to the lack of support for Non-Chinese speaking Hong Kong residents and working with government on solutions to ensure every Hong Kong child has the same rights.
Written by Sarah Cottee