The gates of Li Po Chun Health Clinic opened around 730 and a group of Refugee Union members entered the occupied reception of ISS Prince Edward branch held by three refugees overnight.
The main door and shutter had remained unlocked and open since the ISS security guard abandoned his post Friday evening, effectively allowing all protesters to join the occupation. The police had stood aside to ensure that law and order were maintained. Today they patrolled hourly with little concern.
An investigative reporter from Metro News spent the day with the Refugee Union, gathering proof of ISS-HK food manipulation and cheating. There is abundant factual evidence that significantly less than what the Social Welfare Department pays for groceries (1200$) reaches the mouths of refugees.
The Chinese saying “To steal rice from a beggar’s bowl” describes what ISS Hong Kong perpetrated by hiding food prices. While ISS-HK maintain that contractual obligations prohibits price disclosure, the SWD contract never anticipated a situation in which the contractor might cheat.
It is presumable that the SWD-ISS contract states ‘prices will not be revealed to service users’, but it includes ‘ISS Hong Kong shall not cheat the service users by delivering less than the contracted amount’.
There would be no problem with price concealment, if refugees collect 400$ three times a month. That would have been reasonable and nobody would complain. The problems is that grocery bags contain only 300$ at most – thus refugees receive 900 of a 1200$ monthly allocation.
This is no trivial matter. Imagine your household shopper going to market with 400$ and delivering only 300$ systematically month after month, repeatedly year after year. Would you protest?
The Refugee Union organized Occupy ISS to expose this pricing scam to the general public. Many refugees frequently complained to shops, ISS-HK, SWD, NGOs and Legal Aid, yet nobody took robust action to return the missing food to hungry refugees. Consequently they decided to protest against ISS-HK’s misconduct themselves.
Occupy ISS was not about finding shelter, though a homeless refugee welcomed it. Occupy ISS was about the refugees’ constitutional rights of freedom of expression, assembly and demonstration expressed collectively to demand full and clear disclosure.
There were no police complaints or arrests. The refugees conducted themselves lawfully without disrupting the peace through the week-long occupation of three ISS-HK offices. Unbearable living conditions forced this persecuted social minority to join forces and voice legitimate grievances.
Occupy ISS exposed grave concerns about the propriety of the business conducted by ISS-HK. The protesters stood proudly on their constitutional rights and took activism to a level not seen before in Hong Kong. For the first time a government contractor was occupied and paralyzed for a week.
At 6pm on 18 February 2014 – after seven days of occupation – ISS Hong Kong (a LIMITED COMPANY allowed to drop the “Limited”) obtained a High Court injunction to evict the Refugee Union occupiers and exercise its strict legal rights without offering a reasonable explanation why food prices should be concealed.
The Refugee Union accomplished its mission to expose food cheating by ISS-HK.
Hardcore occupiers from the Refugee Union spent the first weekend inside ISS Prince Edward, guarding the reception with police collaboration. They will stay until their demand is met, that ISS-HK display prices on food collection forms to prevent ongoing abuse and corruption.
ISS-HK predictably refused to meet a delegation since 11 February and instead offered preposterous excuses about Halal meats and basmati rice – commonly available to thousands of residents – being secret commodities priced aside of market forces.
As a natural consequence it appears that ISS-HK and SWD are hiding something from the Hong Kong general public. At this stage there is mounting public interest to know exactly how public funds are being spent and if refugees are being abuses and taken advantage of.
The behaviour of ISS-HK and SWD amount to glaring concealment. Why would any government department in its right mind refuse to put prices on a food list from which refugees must select exactly 1200$ of provisions? How are refugee expected to get it right? Can anyone walk into a supermarket to purchase groceries without prices?
Such obstinate insistence makes no sense and raises huge suspicion that the government is hiding something. If indeed ISS-HK, SWD and the government have nothing to hide, then not only the food prices should be displayed, but the service agreement between SWD and ISS-HK should be published.
On Saturday 15 February, sixty refugees marched to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (“ICAC”) head-quarters with lawmaker Long Hair. The Occupy ISS struggle has attracted a high-profile champion renowned for fighting on the side of those people oppressed by the establishment.
Outside the ICAC tower protesters chanted loudly, “ISS … out! ISS … out! ISS out – out – out!” while four representatives filed a formal complaint against ISS Hong Kong, its management and case workers. The wheels of justice were spun into motion and the refugees now believe they will have their day in court.
In the evening Long Hair paid a surprise visit to Refugee Union comrades guarding ISS Prince Edward. He wished to ensure they were getting food and water and had blankets and pillows for the night.
Such civic spirit and noble solidarity are deplorably missing in NGO workers who make a living serving refugees, but refused to offer any support. The refugees of Hong Kong know who their friends are now.
On Sunday 16 February, the Chinese press published three articles on ISS corruption and its report to the ICAC. The local media will play a key role in restructuring refugee services and pressuring SWD to stop outsourcing. In this respect, the Refugee Union is reaching out to local activist for more support.
The Refugee Union has set a media strategy to convey two clear messages: first, no human being should be treated inhumanely by the government; and second, authorities should not outsource services to a foreign contractor who breached its trust and broke its laws.
Lastly, honor is due to the heroic Mothers of the Nai Wai Slums who occupied the ISS Tsuen Wan office for four days with their young children. These mothers are an inspiration for their courage and determination in the face of sadistic ISS staff who denied screaming babies water.g SWD to stop outsourcing. In this respect, the Refugee Union is reaching out to local activist for more support.
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.