HK carers in subdivided flats spend 11 hours daily on unpaid labour

Carers living in subdivided flats spend an average of 11 hours on weekdays taking care of their children, partners or parents, a survey has revealed, highlighting the issue of unpaid labour in the city’s disadvantaged community.

Old residential buildings in Sham Shui Po. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Among the 317 caregivers interviewed, most of them were full-time carers while some had jobs. A total of 92 per cent of them mainly look after children, with 30 per cent taking care of children with special education needs (SEN) such as autism. Nearly 90 per cent of the caretakers were female.

The care provided included arranging daily activities, looking after their medical needs, and helping them run errands.

The survey was conducted by Ruby Lai, an assistant professor of sociology at the Lingnan University; Crystal Chan, Research Assistant Professor in public health at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s public health school; and the Concerning Subdivided Units Alliance. The questionnaires were distributed from last October to April.

Carers in subdivided flats dedicated more time to their families during the weekends compared to weekdays, at an average of 17.6 hours daily.

carers, caregivers, subdivided flatscarers, caregivers, subdivided flats
A research team releases results of a study on carers living in subdivided flats on April 30, 2024. Photo: The Concerning Subdivided Units Alliance.

Overall, the time spent on unpaid work by carers in subdivided flats was much longer than the city’s average. According to the Census and Statistics Department, those aged 15 and over spent an average of 1.8 hours daily in unpaid work – which the government defines as including voluntary work, taking care of family members and doing housework – in 2015, the latest year for which statistics were available.

In particular, caretakers living in subdivided flats and looking after SEN children had especially long working hours – an average of 11.2 hours daily on weekdays and 17.8 hours on weekends.

Ruby Lai, scholar, Lingnan UniversityRuby Lai, scholar, Lingnan University
Ruby Lai, an assistant professor at Lingnan University, discusses results of a study on carers living in subdivided flats on April 30, 2024 Photo: The Concerning Subdivided Units Alliance.

“While the upcoming Labour Day is to celebrate workers, people often refer to paid work while talking about labour. But actually many people are working in unpaid work, and they are working hard,” Lai told HFKP in Cantonese on Tuesday.

She urged the city to pay more attention to these carers’ “invisible labour,” saying that those not being paid for their work should be considered labourers too.

According to the survey, nearly 74 per cent of carers were the sole carers in the family.

In total, 20.5 per cent of carers said they experienced symptoms of depression in the past two weeks before taking part in the survey, the researchers found. They added that caregivers who have friends in the neighbourhood or who are recipients of the government’s Working Family Allowance Scheme, which provides monthly subsidies to families, tended to have lower risks of depression.

16-hour work days

Ms. Hu, who lives in a 100-square-metre subdivided flat in Tsuen Wan, said during the press conference that she spends an average of 16 hours each day taking care of her two children, who are now in kindergarten and primary school.

carer Ms Hucarer Ms Hu
Ms. Hu, a carer, shares about her experiences of taking care of her two children at a press conference on April 30, 2024. Photo: The Concerning Subdivided Units Alliance.

She said that as they live in a crowded space without air flow, her two children got sick frequently. The medical expenses and her children’s poor health caused her anxiety and led to trouble sleeping.

Another carer, Annie, said she is the sole carer of her daughter, who has special needs. Living in a subdivided flat of round 80 square metres, Annie told reporters she lacked space for cooking. Her daughter also did not have enough room for doing her homework.

Since 2021, Lai has interviewed 50 carers and their young children living in subdivided flats. Apart from providing care for the children, those carers had to spend time making their cramped units more liveable for their daily needs, which the scholar called “living labour.”

The additional labour includes adjusting living space, such as setting up temporary platforms for cooking, assigning family members to take turns utilising certain areas, and arranging household chores outside of their flats, such as doing laundry in a friend’s home.

Support for low-income carers

The median living space of the survey participants was 130 square feet per family, with nearly 20 per cent living in units of less than 99 square feet. On average, they spent around 40 per cent of their household income on rent.

Children plays in a park in Hong Kong in October 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.Children plays in a park in Hong Kong in October 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Children plays in a park in Hong Kong in October 2023. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The research team called on the government to provide more financial support for families living in subdivided units, such as regular rent subsidies for those waiting for public housing and allowances to improve their living environment.

The team also urged authorities to broaden the coverage of the allowance scheme for carers in low-income families. Currently, only carers for people with disabilities and the elderly are eligible.

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