Employees sent on unpaid leave feel unprotected and neglected

Clara Fung, who has been asked to take unpaid leave and salary cut since March, feels vulnerable under COVID-19 because she is not eligible to apply for any financial aid provided by the government while facing possible job loss amid the prolonged pandemic outbreak.

Hong Kong has announced two rounds of Employment Support Scheme (ESS) to safeguard jobs and lowered the threshold for the application of Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) but Ms Fung said the schemes do not cover many workers like her who suffered from hefty wage loss.

“The government only takes care of the grassroots by providing them with much subsidy, but office workers like me have nothing,” said Ms Fung, 22, a designer whose salary has been gutted for around 20 per cent and was forced to take no-pay leave by her company two days a week since March. 

She hopes the government can care for workers on unpaid leave by lowering the standard and qualification for applying for financial assistance. 

Ms Fung, like many other workers forced on unpaid leave, is feeling worried and helpless about losing her job soon when the ESS ends

The government announced in April that it would provide a time-limited unemployment support scheme through the CSSA system for six months. The Social Welfare Department has also temporarily lifted the CSSA asset limits for able-bodied persons by 100 per cent. Both measures are effective from June 1 to November 30. 

However, a lot of unemployed people are not eligible to apply for CSSA even though the asset limits have been relaxed, a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) showed. People who have a job are reluctant or cannot apply for assistance have to face more challenging financial situations on their own, the survey said.

Chak Tung-ching, member of the Executive Committee & Standing Committees from HKCSS said many cases are having financial difficulties under the pandemic because they are not eligible for CSSA. Other employees are waiting to get a new job when this coronavirus is over, so they are unwilling to apply, she added.

The HKCSS has suggested that the government should further relax asset limits of CSSA to let more employees benefit from the scheme.

Employers granted subsidy; employees forced to take no-pay leave

The city’s jobless rate was 6.1 per cent for the three months from June to August, following a 15-year high of 6.2 per cent from April to June. 

The second round of ESS seeks to plug a loophole under its first tranche, which excluded senior employees whose MPF accounts did not show records of wages or voluntary contributions. 

But since the launch of the ESS, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) has received around 150 cases of complaint and recourse. Among those cases, 60 per cent of employees claim that they were forced to take no-pay leave, and 30 per cent of employees got salary cuts. 

“The ESS program allows employers to take the subsidy while cutting employees’ salary at the same time,” said Mung Siu-tat, Chief Executive of HKCTU. “The government should give wage subsidies to employees directly to plug a loophole in the scheme.”

The government has launched the ESS under the second round of the Anti-epidemic Fund to secure employment by providing time-limited financial support to employers. Under this scheme, employers can get a maximum wage subsidy per employee of HK$9,000 per month from September to November.

The two-tranche ESS is launched amid soaring unemployment to prevent massive layoffs

As an extension of an HK$81 billion Anti-Epidemic Fund announced in April and on top of the HK$80 billion relief package unveiled in the 2020/21 Budget, the government hopes the scheme could facilitate the city’s economic recovery and help employers and employees to stay afloat.

Speaking on a radio programme, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong explained why the government decided not to hand out money directly to employees.

 “It will be complicated, and it takes longer to examine and approve (applications),” Dr Law said while admitting that there are loopholes under the latest employment support scheme. 

The new ESS only renews little details about no-pay leave. The scheme said that employers could not force their employees to take no-pay leave for more than a month; otherwise, the government will revoke their full-subsidy.

“A one-month no-pay leave is equal to unemployment, I cannot make a living under this situation,” said Joshua Chan, 38, a truck driver who has been asked to take a month of no-pay leave. 

“The employers abuse their power of forcing employees to take no-pay leave, (and) I think this is not the purpose of the ESS program. The government should enhance its enforcement strategy against this situation,” said Mr Chan.

Cathay Pacific Airways has decided earlier to forgo the aid under the ESS. Members of the flight union think the decision is to pave the way for lay-offs. From Cathay’s official webpage, they own around twenty-one thousand employees in Hong Kong, as of June 2020. Laura Chen from the corporation is afraid of losing her job under COVID-19.

“Employers can decide whether to take the assistance or not, but I feel no protection under the scheme as an employee,” said Ms Chen, 26, a flight crew from Cathay Pacific, who is also the breadwinner of the family.

“The subsidy from the government is too little; employers cannot survive by this amount of subsidy. They are more willing to cut off staff to reduce their business cost,” she said. 

Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific said they will not apply for the second round of Employment Support Scheme

The ESS program will end in November

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung had said earlier that the government has no plan for the third round of ESS yet because two rounds of wage subsidies had already stretched government spending.

The second tranche of the scheme will only help employers in paying employees’ salary until November. The labour sector is worried that the unemployment rate would increase dramatically at the end of 2020.

 Mr Poon Siu-Ping, a member of the Legislative Council for labour constituency, is hoping the government to come up with more immediate plans to help employees. “The unemployment rate will get worse at the end of this year. It could be better if the government can set up unemployment security assistance,” he said.

《The Young Financial Post 新報人財經》



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