Ming has been spending an hour a day over the past six months collecting discarded cardboard on the streets of Sham Shui Po. The most the 15-year-old earned in a week was HK$25 (S$4.30) for 5kg.
The older child of a divorced 39-year-old cleaner, he prepares lunch for his 10-year-old sister and tutors her.
“When I think of how hard my mother works, I think it’s all right to help out a bit,” said Ming, who is in secondary three. “There are people who ask, ‘Why are you gathering cardboard at such a young age?’ I think it’s okay to help my mother when she earns so little.”
Ming is among 274,900 Hong Kong children aged under 18 found living in poverty in 2020, according to this year’s Poverty Situation Report by the government.
The poverty rate of 23.6 per cent meant 1.65 million people, or more than one in five Hongkongers lived in poverty, a 12-year high.
The poverty line is drawn at 50 per cent of the median monthly household income in the city before taxation and government policy interventions, including welfare allowances for the elderly and poor families.
That means an individual with a monthly income of HK$4,400 or less falls below the poverty line, whereas a three-person family is considered poor if the total household income is HK$16,000 or less.
A survey by the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) between June 2020 and September this year revealed that 80 per cent of 201 poor children aged between three and 17 had to do housework or look after their family members.
Nearly a third spent more than eight hours a week helping at home, and nearly a fifth more than 16 hours a week. Their parents were either at work, ill or had to return to mainland China to renew their visas.
Children left exhausted, helpless
The survey found that 57 per cent of children took care of family members including bathing or feeding them, and nearly one in 10 sold waste paper and cardboard to help their families make ends meet.
The survey found that children who spent excessive time on housework said they felt exhausted, helpless or stressed, and had attention issues and muscle aches. They did not have enough rest, or lacked time or energy to play and meet friends.
SoCO deputy director Sze Lai-shan said children could help with household chores, but too much work could be a problem.
“We sometimes see these children quitting school because they have to make money for their families, or they are absent from our [extracurricular] classes because they have to cook for their younger siblings or …….