Christy Choi and Danny Lee write for the South China Morning Post on 16 February 2014
Angry asylum seekers have called on the ICAC to investigate claims a government-contracted social welfare provider has embezzled money intended to provide food for 5,000 refugees.
More than 60 asylum seekers were joined by lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and refugee rights charity Vision First. They chanted slogans and held up placards outside the anti-graft agency’s North Point headquarters yesterday. They later filed a complaint against the International Social Service Hong Kong.
A spokesman for Refugees’ Union, a new pressure group, said a formal request was made for the watchdog to look into present and past services that it believed involved criminality.
They claim they receive groceries valued at HK$300 to $400 less than the HK$1,060 ISS-HK is contractually obliged to provide each month to each refugee. The budget was raised to HK$1,200 this month.
The ISS-HK has denied any wrongdoing, saying its food costs are affected by the high price of speciality items such as basmati rice and halal meat, needed to cater for the diets of the refugees, who are mostly from South Asia and Africa.
“ISS takes any allegations of improper use of public funds seriously,” a spokesman said.
Leung said “there must be something wrong” for a contractor with a multimillion-dollar contract to treat asylum seekers in such a way.
Since Tuesday, the refugees have been staging a sit-in and hunger strikes at the ISS-HK office, demanding a price list, which the Social Welfare Department has declined to provide.
The asylum seekers, including 16 on a hunger strike, are occupying the ISS-HK office in Prince Edward.
A Social Welfare Department spokeswoman has said no irregularities have been found.
4th day of the occupation of three welfare offices by refugee union
Socialist Action reporters
Refugees continued their occupation of ISS-HK offices (International Social Services Hong Kong) in Tsuen Wan, Mong Kok and Prince Edward for a fourth day on 14 February. Support is beginning to grow for the protest action that targets abuses by the Swiss-based NGO’s Hong Kong branch, which receives over HK$200 million a year in government funding but has generated a flood of complaints from asylum seekers.
“We are treated like animals! But by uniting we show we are strong, we can change things,” said one of the occupiers from a first floor window of the Prince Edward branch to supporters in the courtyard below. Many of the concerns relate to food distribution by the agency, which the occupiers say falls far short of the value stipulated by government.
Legislator ‘Longhair’ Leung Kwok-hung of the LSD (League of Social Democrats) visited the occupation on Friday evening and pledged to set up meetings with authorities including ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption). With more than 60 protesters gathering at the Prince Edward occupation on Friday, the Chinese-language press – including Apple Daily and TVB – made a long awaited appearance.
Socialist Action supports the occupation and demands for refugees’ rights to be strengthened. We oppose the government’s manic outsourcing of refugee services to agencies like ISS – all welfare provision should be under democratic public sector control. Socialist Action members are assisting the occupation and the newly formed refugee union in a number of practical ways – with loudspeakers, banners and placards in Chinese, and contacting the Chinese language media. More support is needed and if the pressure is stepped up in the coming period the refugees can win concessions from the government. This would represent a victory for all workers and oppressed people in Hong Kong.
Much to the chagrin of ISS-HK, the protest intensified through the afternoon. It’s day four of Occupy ISS that aims to upend welfare abuse and corruption. The winds of change are at last sweeping through the refugee community. A case worker who asked a Srilankan occupier mother to give up and go home was told, “I will rather die here than give up the struggle”.
Protesters bolstered by fresh arrivals shouted, “Shame Shame ISS” and “Shame Shame Panares” with unrelenting intensity. Day four was shaping up a winner. The 16 occupiers inside the Prince Edward office felt the vibrations of such tremendous cheering in the packed stairway.
With moral certainty, the Refugee Union was winning the battle of wills with a contractor that never granted the courtesy of a meeting. Again Miss Panares had underestimated refugee power and would pay the price.
It was time to call the press to witness the action and report demands that food supply cheating should stop. Activists sent protest photos by mobile phone to media contacts and finally confirmations came in: South China Morning Post, Apple Daily, Ming Pao and TVB would dispatch crews.
Legislator ‘Longhair’ Leung Kwok-hung of the LSD (League of Social Democrats) promised to visit around 7pm. The news fired up the occupiers inside who shouted from the window, “We will stay here till we win. We are ready for another week or a whole month. We will never give in!” Protesters climbed up to them with water, a bullhorn mike and protest cards for photo opportunities the press didn’t miss.
Momentum was growing at an incredible pace and, for the first time in four days, Refugee Union members had a feeling that victory might be close. It was amazing that downtrodden refugees were fighting back and, its wrongdoings exposed, ISS-HK appeared cornered, paralyzed with shock.
Exciting reports came in from Mongkok and Tsuen Wan that Criminal Investigation Department (“CID”) detectives had entered back-offices and removed documents. Suddenly the same happened at Prince Edward, when 15 officers entered the backdoor ignoring the inquiring gazes of 100 protesters.
The detectives’ stern looks were sufficient to communicate the gravity of their task. Hope grew that authorities were taking criminal allegations seriously and investigating. With the Chinese media picking up the occupation, the shame ISS-HK brought the government can no longer be ignored.
At 18:40 there was a stunning breakthrough. The ISS security guard who watched the occupiers unlocked the main door and stepped out saying, “Now you are free! I am leaving!” Nobody had expected that the occupiers could rout ISS-HK from the Prince Edward branch! The abuser was falling!
After failing to flush out the occupiers for four days, the tyrant suddenly relinquished control of the reception that was then ‘liberated’ by a surge of refugees. Surely greater forces were also at play.
The following scene was so surreal that those experiencing it could hardly believe it. It felt like liberation troops had stormed the place to free the Occupiers. There was shouting and dancing. The cheering of “Shame Shame ISS” was both tremendous and overwhelming. Families tearfully reunited; friends hugged excitedly; banners unfolded and cameras flashed to document the historical moment.
Never before in HK history have refugees dominated an abandoned ISS-HK branch.
It was a liberation party! Long Hair and TVB arrived to consolidate the victory and dispel that bizarre sense that maybe it wasn’t happening, that it was a dream because things like this aren’t real!
Time will tell exactly what happened behind the scenes last night. More than refugee power had caused the apparent collapse of ISS-HK as it was known. Would it restructure of close down? Nobody knew.
A triumphant VICTORY concluded Day 4 and proud refugees savored the moment richly.
Christy Choi and Danny Lee write for the South China Morning Post on 15 February 2014
Asylum seekers demand answers from agency as sit-in protest over cheap meals enters fourth day
Protests at the offices of the International Social Service continued for a fourth day yesterday as asylum seekers continued to seek answers from the welfare provider and the Social Welfare Department about the true cost of food allocated to them.
Asylum seekers are claiming that up to 5,000 refugees are being short-changed by about HK$300-HK$400 worth of food per person per month.
Their union is asking the ISS and the Social Welfare Department, which has contracted ISS to provide food to asylum seekers, to provide a price list and expiry dates for the produce.
ISS said yesterday that any comparison between the price of the products it supplied and retail prices could be explained by the inclusion of special foods such as halal meat and basmati rice to meet asylum seekers’ cultural and religious needs.
A department spokesman said no irregularities were found in the documentation, and declined to provide a price list, saying it was a confidential document that could be released only to the monitoring government department and bureau.
The spokesman said the price differences may be due to vendors not being allowed to change the price of food through the period of a contract. Therefore a “direct comparison of the average budget for food for each claimant and retail food prices in the market [which fluctuates] is not appropriate.”
“No, it’s completely appropriate to do a comparison,” said Robert Tibbo, a human rights lawyer and non-executive director of Vision First, an NGO that has been aiding the union.
The food items, he said, were products not normally on the market in Hong Kong, but, he added, there were generic items such as rice and vegetables where a comparison with Hong Kong food prices would be possible.
“I don’t see why the Social Welfare Department wouldn’t make this list public,” said Tibbo. “These are food items for Hong Kong’s most vulnerable populations,” he said, adding it was in the public interest to know if the government or refugees were being taken advantage of.
Since 2006, ISS has provided HK$1,060 of food to each refugee each month. The amount increases to HK$1,200 this month.
“The failure by ISS-Hong Kong to disclose food pricing particulars is yet a further indication of discrimination brought against asylum seekers as well as a lack of accountability by the government,” said Mark Sutherland, a human rights lawyer.
On Day 4 of “Occupy ISS” this agency is like an elephant stuck in the thick of the jungle, vines tangled around its feet, tusks stuck in branches … unable to move. There might be justice for refugees in Hong Kong. The Refugee Union launched its first action on 11 February 2014 and four days later are going strong. Never before was a (corrupt) government contractor paralyzed by activists, let alone refugees. Local campaigners and university students are visiting and offering support with Chinese. New alliances are being formed.
This morning, a noticeable change was the absence of police. Two-men patrols regularly entered the premises to casually monitor activities without visible concern, as if this organized chaos was normal. Perhaps the police appreciate that refugees were indeed wronged and ISS-HK tampered with contracted services. Supporters sent breakfast to those locked inside, but the raucous 16 at ISS Prince Edward continued their hunger strike.
As refugees couldn’t reach case workers, they decided to post notices on the main door. They wrote messages of displeasure, urging ISS-HK to stop abusing their power and deliver services that are essential for a social group prohibited from working. Some notices were very direct, “ISS Stop Corruption” and “ISS is a thief“, while others reminded Miss Panares it was Valentine’s Day — a time for love!
Refugees who had appointments today were informed services were suspended until February 24, ten days later, which made people wonder. Was ISS-HK being reorganized? Were computers and files seized to search for evidence of crimes? It was certainly strange that staff returned to ISS Mongkok just to sit around without the tools to carry out duties. They appeared dazed and when Vision First visited, they scattered like mice before a cat.
The important elements are the following: ISS-HK has been paralyzed for four days; refugees have successfully occupied all three branches and are going strong; the police seem unconcerned with a lawful protest; ISS staff appears to be in a state of shock and Miss Panares hasn’t been seen since midnight Tuesday. These protesters have no work to resume, nor comfortable homes to enjoy, so they are happy continue with what one described as, “the most fun I have had in Hong Kong in ten years!”
Among the many scenarios that come to mind, there is one that fits every piece of this puzzle and it is hardly promising for The Gang of Panares.
After eight Refugee Union members reinforced their comrades inside ISS-HK Prince Edward, hope grew of achieving the objective of stopping the corruption in food distribution. The police was less helpful than previously and constable projected needless authorities to curtail non-existing trouble. The senior officers failed to make the 3pm briefing and were in animated discussion with stone-faced ISS staff.
Tension was rising, but chief inspector Stephen was unable to offer anything more than the formulaic, “Nothing changed. We are still in a deadlock. ISS still refuses to talk to the Refugee Union.” Given the severity of accusations based on factual evidence (food collections) and three days of protest, the investigators were not about to tip their hand.
On a record cold afternoon, with the mercury plunging to 5C, refugees huddled about in small groups discussing ISS abuses and the impossibility of making ends meet under current conditions. More refugees are now incarcerated for working illegally – a necessity where welfare fails – than ever before. This protest is as much about food cheating as it is about resisting unjust asylum policies.
Activist power down but never switch off. Three days of little sleep and much adrenaline raises alertness to combat zone levels. And suddenly everyone sprang into action. An SMS arrived from ISS Mongkok, “They are taking away all computers and files. The staff is packing everything and closing the office.” Was ISS-HK removing evidence from a crime scene? Could that be possible with scores of policemen around?
The toughest part of being right in the middle of the action, is being kept out of the information loop. Nobody will tell refugee protesters what strategic decision are being made. Minutes later those inside ISS Prince Edward confirmed that there too staff was removing computers and packing files into boxes. Why would ISS-HK move refugee welfare operations to another office where the sit-in would follow?
There was a feeling that ISS-HK was removing evidence and, since the police appeared to collaborate, calls went out to back-up teams keeping warm nearby. If authorities would let this happen, the Refugee Union would document such unprecedented activities. A protest that sought to stop food cheating had caused an unexpected chain of events and the shocked faces of ISS staff spoke louder than words – it looked like everyone had just suffered a death in the family!
What was going on? As much as the refugees holed up inside the offices could do nothing, those outside could only monitor the exits, determined to take photos of the relocation. Within minutes there were more than 100 refugees inside and around the building. The wrongdoings ISS got away with for years would not continue today, not under the eyes of the police force and the Refugee Union.
The Mongkok protesters sent photos of eerily bare offices. Staff had removed everything but desk, chairs and cabinets – bizarre to say the least! How did “Occupy ISS” collapse one-third of arrogant ISS Hong Kong in less than three days? Refugees had demanded a food pricelist, not a surrender. It makes no sense for ISS-HK to move operations to another location where the protest will follow.
Two protesters climbed a wall to peer into the Prince Edward office, where police and staff, who appeared in shock, were in animated discussion. The blinds were quickly closed. Then secretarial staff streamed out with frowns of antipathy against refugees. Were their jobs in jeopardy? More senior staff stayed on, though Miss. Panares and her managers were not seen. Had anyone been arrested?
As night descended so did a bitter cold. The support teams could not spend a third night outside without consequence. It was decided to return home and recover ahead of an embattled weekend. If ISS-HK was going to strip Prince Edward bare there was nothing the Refugee Union could do about it anyway.
One wonders what on earth is going on – change is happening and it is precipitous.