Ruth Lister - When greed tramples on human dignity
I recently visited Hong Kong as the guest of the social work department at Hong Kong Baptist University – a great bunch of radical academics/activists. I was there to give the 2nd Peter Townsend Memorial Lecture in honour of the late Peter Townsend who was a towering figure in the struggle against poverty and injustice. The title of my lecture was 'Affirming human dignity: poverty and human rights'. What I saw while I was in Hong Kong was a shocking example of how the dignity of people living in poverty can be trampled by human greed and a state that doesn't seem to care.
I knew that Hong Kong shared with the UK the dubious distinction of being one of the most unequal societies in the rich world and that it now has the widest gap between rich and poor of any developed Asian economy. I had also read how this was epitomised by the gulf between an elderly low paid worker living in a so-called 'coffin home', interviewed by CNN and the view from his sole window of the glitz and glamour of Hong Kong. But nothing had prepared me for the reality of such homes.
Community organisers from the Alliance for Children Development Rights and Concerning CSSA and Low Income Alliance introduced me to two tenants of rooms in 'sub-divided housing', the more anodyne description of such dwellings. They lived on a floor sub-divided into 14 units. Each unit had room for a single bed and not much more, with belongings piled up around the bed. One of the two I saw had no windows (to look out at the glitz of Hong Kong). One was in the ceiling, reached by a step ladder, with only air vents for ventilation. I didn't see it but was told that it was impossible to stand up once up there. The residents shared one cold water shower and one toilet. The 'kitchen' had been turned into another unit so there were no cooking facilities.
One of the tenants I met was an unemployed man, aged 54, who looked considerably older. He had lived there for three years. Because he was single and below pension age he had no priority on the extremely long waiting list for public housing yet employers considered him too old to employ. Not surprisingly he had been in and out of hospital with health problems. Physical and mental health problems are common among residents of such dwellings. In total about 10,000 people are living in such accommodation. The community organisers who took me round told me that they had not shown me the worst examples of sub-divided accommodation, where units are piled on top of each other, as they were afraid I'd find them too shocking.
While Hong Kong might be many miles from the UK, the housing conditions I saw exemplify the pernicious impact of inequality. Private landlords will be making huge profits on the backs of living conditions that blight the lives of thousands of human beings. The state is failing in its responsibility to protect their human rights. The residents I met hang on to their human dignity in the most appalling circumstances but it is a crime that, for years at a time, they are forced to endure conditions not fit for human beings.
Ruth Lister is a Labour peer, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University and Chair of the Compass Management Committee
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