Call for fresh cash handouts grows louder

Unions and parties across the political spectrum stepped up calls for an unemployment subsidy and another HK$10,000 handout in the budget that will be unveiled next Wednesday.

Pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions said a HK$10,000 handout would give instant relief to people who lost their jobs amid the pandemic and stimulate consumer spending.

Its chief executive Mung Siu-tat said more than three-quarters of the four-round HK$160.5 billion anti-epidemic fund were given to employers or business owners and did not directly help workers much.

He said the government’s employment support scheme could only delay the jobless problem for half a year as massive layoffs followed the program’s end in November.

“In the budget, the government needs to correct the mistakes in its previous policies,” Mung said. “We estimate that all these measures would total to about HK$130 billion.”

Chairwoman Carol Ng Man-yee said only one in 22 people who lost their jobs during the pandemic received Comprehensive Social Security Assistance.

She said the rest were not eligible to apply for dole. The government should set up an unemployment subsidy, Ng added.

She said over HK$1 billion has been offset during the pandemic layoffs through the Mandatory Provident Fund offsetting mechanism. She said nearly one-third of workers sacked had lost their long-service payment or severance payment.

The unions urged the government to reserve HK$50 billion to compensate workers for the money they lost through the offsetting mechanism.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po has said it will be difficult to include cash handouts in his budget as the government already faces a record deficit of HK$300 billion.

But the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said the government should spend reasonably and “hand out sweeteners” to help people cope with the pandemic.

Chairwoman Starry Lee Wai-king said: “Our fiscal reserve still has over HK$800 billion that can be used and we haven’t counted the other assets that can be used so I think the financial secretary doesn’t need to be too worried.

“Based on the [situation] now, under the pandemic, we have to manage public finance in a prudent manner but also need to spend when necessary.”

Lee also said her party has collected 100,000 signatures pushing the government to discuss procuring mainland vaccines with Beijing.

The party plans to meet Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who has been appointed to take charge of vaccine procurement.

Danny Lau Tat-pong, honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association, suggested that the government give out HK$5,000 in consumer vouchers with a validity period to stimulate retail sales.

Lau said it is unlikely the government will hand out cash again, adding people may not use the money on consumption, which would then be unhelpful in stimulating the economy.

Chan Wai-keung, a social science lecturer at the Polytechnic University’s Hong Kong Community College, said the government lacks long-term fiscal planning. He said the government has hired more civil servants but public services have not improved. Chan suggested the government use artificial intelligence to save manpower.

He also said some enterprises like supermarkets, which still reaped profits during the pandemic, received wage subsidies and Cathay Pacific launched a massive layoff undertaking after the government bailed it out for nearly HK$30 billion.

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