Refugees are not allowed to purchase certain products with the newly introduced food coupons. On 8 June 2015, the Legislative Council “Panel on Welfare Services” suggested that the Social Welfare Department, or its contractor ISS-HK, produce a detailed list of excluded products. The list would help avoid, or at least minimize, arguments between refugees and cashiers that inconvenience impatient customers at busy check-out counters.
There are plans to expand the coupon network to other supermarkets to increase product variety (including Halal and ethnic choices) and price competitiveness, as the 280 stores operated by Wellcome are not known for the cheapest prices. Meanwhile, cashiers require training and guidelines to reduce the subjective interpretations of the “Terms and Conditions” printed on the back of coupons.
Here is an example of the challenges faced by refugees: a mother shared on the Refugee Union chat, “One of my friend went to Wellcome and wanted to buy milk for her baby and the cashier say that she can’t buy the milk with the coupon. So what is the use of the coupons that we get from ISS if we can’t buy the milk for our babies?” A member updated the group, “After the fight at last she got the milk. I think it depends on the Wellcome staff.” Another offered a thoughtful solution, “We need to present our problems as mothers to the Social Welfare as quickly as possible.”
A Vision First member reported that she had successfully purchased baby formula at several Wellcome stores, until it ran out in her neighbourhood. Babies can be incredibly fussy about what they eat. The mother broadened her search and found the preferred brand at a 24-Hour Wellcome, only to be told that the coupons were not accepted for “baby needs”. After assuring the manager that other branches allowed the purchase, she left with a hungry, screaming infant.
A refugee family traveled to Causeway Bay to shop at a Wellcome store that offered a large variety of fresh vegetable and fruits which their three children could not enjoy under the previous in-kind food distribution. It was evening and the store was especially busy. The cashier was confused and called the manager who inspected each item in the shopping cart: Nutella was removed “because it is chocolate”; chicken fillets were removed “because they are not frozen”; potato chips were removed “because they are snacks”; vinegar was removed “because it contains alcohol” …
The mother and children were embarrassed by the protracted and fastidious inspection executed under the intrusive stare of a growing queue of annoyed customers. The husband was downright offended. He was insulted by the examination, yet had no recourse against such degrading treatment if he wanted to collect groceries for his family. He vowed never to return, which was probably of little consolation.
Are food coupons and the absurd policing of shopping cart meant to introduce a new form of humiliation that refugees must submissively endure to remain in our city? It has been reported that refugees must present all their receipts to caseworkers in order to receive coupons for the following month. What is the point of this practice if Wellcome staff already performs the inspection?
There are many reports of coupon-bearers being denied baby formula, fresh milk, non-frozen meats, as well as sweet and savory goods that could be classified as ‘snacks’. No wonder the trading of food coupons is already underway, selling for about half face value to the same astute middlemen who previously profited from emergency rations and now trade in valuable coupons.
Vision First urges authorities to scrap the products ban, or at the very least to promptly publish the list of excluded items, as the terms and conditions carried by the food coupons remain open to interpretation.