HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's so called "cage men" may be among the city's poorest, but rents per square foot for their dingy wire-mesh cubicles are now on a par with luxury flats in the city's famed Peak district.
With Hong Kong's property prices having soared over the past year and urban redevelopment shrinking the supply of older, cheaper tenement blocks, thousands of cage men still dwelling in 15-square-foot cubicles, usually crammed eight to a room in rusty tiered bunks, have seen their lives squeezed even further.
Sze Lai-shan of the Society for Community Organisation said rents for the city's cage homes had risen around 20 percent over the past year, with some cages renting for up to HK$1,500 (127 pound). On a square-foot basis, such rents have even exceeded those of some mansions in Hong Kong's exclusive Peak district where many local tycoons reside.
"There have been rental price rises all the time," said Sze. "It's more expensive than the Peak district, which is about HK$30-40 per square foot."
While the financial hub of Hong Kong enjoys a reputation as one of Asia's most affluent cities, its wealth gap is among the worst in Asia, with around 100,000 of the city's 7 million people living in tiny units of less than 60 square feet, according to Sze.
"The government doesn't really have a perspective for helping these people," said Sze, who called on the government to build more public housing and to ban such cage home dwellings.
According to Jones Lang LaSalle research, the value of luxury and mass residential property in Hong Kong rose 8.1 percent and 9.7 percent respectively in the first quarter.
Hong Kong's poverty challenge has also come under the spotlight amid recent tensions to finally enact a minimum wage, pitting unionists and workers against powerful business groups who have resisted such legislation for years.
Neighbours like mainland China, meanwhile, have already enacted minimum wage legislation, and plan to increase wage levels substantially in some provinces like Guangdong on May 1.
Unionists in Hong Kong want a minimum hourly wage of at least HK$33 per hour in July to narrow the city's wage gap, while pro-business groups say anything above $24 per hour would hurt the economy and spark layoffs.
Hong Kong's Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, has crept higher over the past decade to 0.533 in 2006, making it one of the most inequitable places in Asia.