The case for the right to work

Post Date: Aug 27th, 2013 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

In the aftermath of the refugee welfare crisis, Vision First advocates for the right to work. Radical change that is both meaningful and pragmatic must be rooted in upholding refugee rights and these include employment rights.

Palliative measures remain Band-Aid solutions that mask failed policies that might alleviate some hardship, but offer no lasting solution. It is hoped that the government will consider the bigger picture when brainstorming the way forward. Now is the time for policy-makers to study new ideas.

Granting refugees the right to work eliminates the constraints of a welfare system that will again be found wanting in the face of inflection and the economic pressure of life in a prohibitively expensive city. Assuming the upcoming Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) is fair, efficient and credible, refugees will no longer be waiting 5 to 10 years for decision and average stays will be shorter.

Under the USM umbrella, the government could adopt measures implemented in other developed countries that include a defined period of “waiting on welfare” (say, 6 months) followed by a period of “waiting while working”. How long refugees might work will depend on the efficiency of a screening system that meets the high standards of fairness demanded by society.

Vision First advocates for the right to work that offers advantages including:

  1. The economic benefit of having productive refugees working in labour-intensive and transnational jobs (that locals cannot perform), which engenders and promotes the city’s spirit of self-reliance.
  2. The ideology of self-reliance is a cornerstone of the Hong Kong’s economic miracle. Citizens are encouraged to rely on themselves and their connections to survive. Transitional or not, refugees are part of society and nobody benefits by trapping them in a welfare bubble.
  3. The alignment with very limited welfare assistance for residents. The Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) is a narrow safety net for the most vulnerable citizens (80% elderly) who are unable to work. It prevents starvation while encouraging able citizens to strive for a higher standard of living.
  4. The saving of 203 million dollars spent on a welfare contract. This would save considerable administrative and salary costs as well as the inefficiency of distributing food and other necessities. ISS would be closed down. Refugees would welcome trust, self-reliance and empowerment.
  5. The direct management of more vulnerable refugees by the government. SWD would care for children, elderly and those unable to work through the current welfare system available to citizens. There would be no more complaints against unfit government contractors.
  6. The reduced pressure on refugee NGOs, faith and support groups. These organizations would then assist in filling service gaps that are not strictly SWD’ duty. Most refugees would become self-reliant and only depend on NGOs assistance for one-off, non-recurring interventions.
  7. The resolution of antagonism. Given the right to work, refugees would actively find the means to support themselves and their family. They would no longer be trapped between insufficient assistance and the prohibition to work. They would guide, advice and assist each other.

Granting refugees the right to work removes the need to review the current welfare package. Empowering refugees meets the overarching principles the government strictly abides by and are the economic rock on which Hong Kong was built. In our view, the way forward is the right to work. It may be limited to certain sectors, where labour is in demand and refugees have a clear advantage in generating business opportunities from which the community benefits.

It is well-known that the government prefers economic arguments to those predicated on human rights and social justice. Safeguarding refugee rights, Vision First proposes solutions that are in the best interest of both Hong Kong and refugees. We should ask: What do refugees want, more welfare or the right to work? What does Hong Kong want, to improve economic prospects and social stability or to waste tax dollars in ineffective deterrence and welfare?