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‘Employers should provide decent salaries’

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image Paul Pun, Caritas secretary general

Paul Pun Chi Meng arrives at the local association Caritas with a worried look on his face. “Sorry, but I got a call from a former student who is having drug problems,” he quickly explains as he grabs a chair to sit on.
Caritas secretary general says he is still trying to find out why the number of young female girls taking up drugs is increasing. Probably, another of the many changes that he has witnessed in society over the years, which he calls “interesting”.
Even though the social welfare system is improving, in the interview with Macau Daily Times, Paul Pun describes how a growing number of people are seeking help from Caritas in order to cover their basic needs. While the city is becoming richer, people are becoming poorer, he complains.
According to Pun, the government “is on the right track” in terms of social welfare, but other sectors should enhance their efforts to contribute more to society, especially the business sector which still profits from low salaries.
Low-income families, he adds, “are starting to become socially isolated because of financial problems,” mainly because what they earn barely covers the rent and the need for basic goods.
On the other hand, the middle class is becoming a bit unhappy as well, he says, sharing his ideas on how the public housing system should work in Macau.

Macau Daily Times (MDTimes) - What kind of people are seeking Caritas’ help nowadays?

Paul Pun (P.P.) - In the past, people used to ask us for financial assistance, but now the social welfare system has improved and covers a wider number of residents. But people are still coming to us asking for money to pay the rent. Currently, we are also questioning if we should continue to run the rice program, because more people are receiving support from the government. However, the truth is that the number of people asking for rice is also increasing compared to last year.
That’s interesting… people who are currently receiving support from the government are still coming to us because they cannot cope with the demands of today’s living standards. They also need psychological support counseling, so they feel safer with the link to Caritas than that of the government. Another interesting issue is that there are now people who ask for small loans just to cope with very basic needs.

MDTimes - Why do people continue to ask for financial assistance, if you say they can get aid from the government?
P.P. - They are not being well paid. Better salaries are becoming a common need for low-income groups. They come to Caritas, because we help them to get the small things [that otherwise they couldn’t get]. Low-income groups should get a wage rise, because although the government assistance has increased, the local labour market keeps static in terms of payments. They cannot afford to pay the rent and buy food they used to buy. In the past, even the poor used to buy things for worshipping the gods, but now some cannot afford it and they just light a candle. People ask us for help because they cannot afford to meet their daily demands. Families are starting to become socially isolated because of financial problems and they don’t have enough money to take part in social activities. And still some of them are getting assistance from the government…

Numbers growing

MDTimes - Is the number of people growing in the low-income group?

P.P. - For sure. Prices are going up, while salaries have not increased much. I often see people who don’t eat or sleep well and work too much. When they come here, we talk about health, living standards and financial management. When we give them rice, we also give a small amount of money, so they can buy other things.
Now, some people may ask if Caritas should keep the family service department. We began because people were poor, but now these people can get help from the government. However, our job now is also to provide them with enough support during the weeks they spend on the waiting list and to help cover their basic needs.

MDTimes - You have mentioned that government social welfare services are getting better. Is the government doing a good job when it comes to social affairs?

P.P. - It’s better [than before], but I cannot say it’s an excellent job. If that were the case, the living standard would have improved as well. Why is it better? Because, at least, when inflation goes up, they [the government] put measures in place to assist those that are poor. In the past, when inflation went up, there wasn’t any news.

 

‘Low-income groups should receive a wage rise, because although government assistance has increased, the local labour market keeps static in terms of payments’

Nowadays, the health care system also offers some flexibility for those who cannot afford it. If they cannot afford to pay the rent, they can be put on the waiting list for social housing. While they are on the waiting list, they can ask for an extra subsidy to help them pay the rent. Of course, some problems remain, because we don’t put pressure on the business sector to increase basic salary. Currently, some low-income earners have to hold two jobs to help the family. Employers have to consider the advantages they could take if they raise salaries.

MDTimes - The government is planning to establish a minimum wage, but beginning only with two industries - cleaners and building attendants. Is this the right move?

P.P. - A minimum wage should be a reference and not a ceiling. If we just set up a minimum salary everybody will get the same salary and no improvements will be made. We should educate employers to provide decent salaries. Let’s suppose one hour equals to MOP 1. We should encourage employers to have that as a reference only, because otherwise all employers will pay MOP 1 per hour and employee situations will remain unchanged. With better salaries, they [employers] would be able to attract new workers and maintain the ones they have. If the employer is constantly hiring new people some problems may arise, because there won’t be any experienced workers to help the newcomers. 

‘Not enough’ housing units

MDTimes - Almost 500 people from 252 different households are benefiting from the Food Bank policy. How does this figure reflect on our society?
P.P. - The number is not that high; [if it was based on accurate needs from the low-income group] it should be higher. Prices are going up rapidly so more people should be entitled to benefit from this policy. Nevertheless, problems in Macau are mainly linked to housing prices. That’s today’s main issue and we should address it. In the final year of Ho’s term [former Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau Wah], the plans for social housing were reviewed, which have been then followed up by the new Chief Executive. We are on the right track, but I still think we should pay attention to other sectors, rather than only the business sector. They all racked up a lot of profit over the years.

MDTimes - Public housing is, indeed, one of society’s main demands at present. What is your take on the government’s policies in this field?

P.P. - Social housing should be divided into two categories. One focused in those who are very poor, so they would pay very small rents. Another category should be designed for those that are not qualified according to the government requirements, but they still have some housing problems. They should pay a rent a little bit higher [than low-income earners], but this way they wouldn’t need to shoulder the private market prices. Currently, the government policy doesn’t include this. Still, the government should consider helping those who are working hard but still cannot afford private market prices.
Secondly, the quantity of social housing is not enough, which is also our main problem. Poor families have to wait a long time for an apartment. Right now, the numbers of social housing should increase, as well as affordable housing.

 

‘We are on the right track, but I still think we should pay attention to other sectors, rather than only the business sector. They all racked up a lot of profits over the years’

MDTimes - So, the 19,000 units that the government expects to complete by next year are not enough…

P.P. - It’s not enough. But, at least, they [the government] have already given us a clue that more houses will be built soon.

MDTimes - Secretary for Transport and Public Works, Lau Si Io, has announced that, after the 16 year lock-up period, the government will be giving priority to reacquire affordable housing units, before the owner sells them into the private market. Do you agree with this option?

P.P. - Apartments shouldn’t be sold in the open market. The government has to take the units back for several years to ensure the stabilisation of the housing market. We have to ensure that the government handles affordable housing to make sure that prices are kept low and people can afford to buy a house.

Measures needed for middle class

MDT - In April, the government launched a number of social subsidies to support low-income groups. However, because of the ceilings imposed by the guidelines, some people are not entitled to these subsidies. Are some classes being left behind?


P.P. - Surely… Affordable housing can be a good instrument for helping the middle class, while the sandwich class can benefit from social housing. The middle class also needs more elderly homes. Today they have to pay too much. It would be good if the government could build more homes for the elderly.
They also lack good health programmes, because the middle class looks to Hong Kong for health treatment, which is very expensive. Here in Macau the health care system is not well established, doctors are not experienced, so middle class people don’t rely so much on the local health care system. Currently, they are not happy, because they think they are not receiving the proportional return for their contribution to society. The middle class has to pay taxes, salaries to the workers, high commercial rents, so they think those that are working in casinos are being better rewarded, with less effort.

MDT - What should be done to tackle this issue?

P.P - Tax reduction, building more facilities for social activities, discounts for ferry tickets and airport taxes, because people from the middle class travel a lot. They know how to save energy, so we could encourage them to save more and give them a bonus. A commercial compound should be created with lower rental prices to help them cope with private market prices. Special parking lot fees would be useful as well. 

MDTimes - Any special measure regarding housing?

P.P. - That can be solved with affordable housing, as well. It should be divided into two groups. One would be for people with greater needs, who cannot buy [a house] in the private market. For the second group, I would propose better quality economic housing to meet middle class requirements.

MDTimes - The Chief Executive has asked Caritas to submit a report with proposals to improve elderly services. What are your many proposals?


P.P. - We are due to send the report this week. The sandwich group cannot hire people to take care of their elders, so we propose income proportional services fees for those who cannot afford these services. The government can pay part of the fees for them. For the middle class, the government has to make sure there is enough professional staff holding adequate qualifications. Now there are not enough nurses and specialist doctors and we have only one day centre in Taipa. More day centres and further training are required. If we do this, nurses and doctors can visit homes occasionally, while the elderly can get assistance from semi-professional staff in a permanent basis.

‘More respect’ for migrants

MDTimes - You usually voice some concerns for migrant workers. What kind of assistance do they ask for from Caritas?

P.P. - They ask for places to gather and financial support for medical fees. When they are sick usually the employer provides them assistance, but still they have other problems. When they go back home, for instance, they also need extra money to go from Manila to their village, even though the employer is required to pay for the flight. Generally, there should be more respect for migrants. For instance, hospital fees are double for migrants. Furthermore, we still need to educate employers, because they don’t respect their [employees] cultures. Also, migrant workers want to contribute to society, but there is no room for them to volunteer, because the law doesn’t allow it. Bottom end, they feel apart from this society.

‘Currently, middle class people are not happy, because they think they are not receiving the proportional return for their contribution to society’

MDTimes - The government has proposed to increase the entering and working age in casinos from 18 to 21. Could this help solve some social issues?

P.P. - I was one of the people who proposed it. It will give more time for people to decide if they should work in the casinos and consider other job opportunities. It can also reduce the pressure on parents because what happens today is that their children don’t ask for their opinion and just go to work for casinos.

MDTimes - The Social Welfare Bureau will soon set up a social workers registration system. Some people often voice concerns over professional qualifications. Is it really an issue?

P.P. - In order to help these professionals have better preparation, we need to revise the curriculum of social work programmes. We also need to provide students with more opportunities to practice within society. They also need to be encouraged to go abroad to improve their knowledge and abilities.

MDTimes - When you arrived here you said you were providing assistance to a young girl who’s having drug problems. The government said recently it is especially concerned with the growth rate of female drug abusers in the past few years. Do you share this view?

P.P. - Overall, there is a drop in the number of youngsters taking drugs, but it is true that more and more teenage girls are using drugs. This should be a warning to society. We must realise what needs to be done to help these girls. We [Caritas] are still trying to discover the reasons behind this situation. Perhaps the way through which we are raising awareness is not working equally for boys and girls. We may ought to change the concept in order to better convey the message to girls.

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