Good news for aficionados of political pugilism, as Hong Kong’s Liberal Party throws down the gauntlet and announces that the city’s forthcoming minimum wage should be no higher than HK$24 an hour. Assuming a six-day working week (and the Liberals know of no other sort) and an eight-hour day (they don’t count waiting for the boss to leave the office in the evening), this would yield a monthly salary of just under HK$5,000.
Party boss Miriam Lau Kin-yee rather neatly pre-empts objections that this isn’t enough to live on by declaring at the outset that it isn’t supposed to be. It is, she says, intended only to provide “basic protection” – against, presumably, scurvy and beriberi. This woman is a Tartar: her ancestors sat in the saddle for days on end supping horse blood straight from the jugular and putting the whole population of continent-sized grasslands to the sword. One of her finest achievements as legislator representing the transport industry has been to oppose measures that would meaningfully penalize minibus drivers who run red lights.
Ranged against her party will be the Big Lychee’s motley array of labour activists, who are eyeing a minimum wage of HK$35 or so (which they could argue is modest compared with the US/UK levels of HK$56-60). The usual division of the city into pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps will largely be irrelevant to this clash; indeed, so unlovable are the Liberals that even the staunchest defenders of free markets will be secretly hoping for as uneconomic a rate as possible just out of malice.
A couple of years ago, a contractor who employed mainland women to collect the garbage (12 hours/six days) at a housing estate learned that his workers were supplementing their HK$4,000 a month with HK$1,000 from recycling material they picked out from the trash. And so he cut their pay to HK$3,000. In last year’s election, the radical, indeed inflammatory, League of Social Democrats – ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung et al – increased their numbers in the Legislative Council from one to three. Even in Macau, with a tame media, loyal civic organizations and docile public, there was a May Day mini-riot a couple of years ago.
To the Hong Kong government, whose policies almost seem to have been designed to enlarge our underclass, this issue is potentially even more explosive than the middle-class dissatisfaction with former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Our leadership’s number-one constituency, the families who run the property cartel, are probably not directly exposed much to a minimum wage; the big conglomerates they operate don’t depend much on dirt-cheap unskilled labour. But they do depend on screwing everyone else through their price-fixing and other collusion, including the small and medium companies who will be squeezed by the minimum wage, some possibly into insolvency. In theory, the spotlight could then shift onto the economic burden imposed by the government’s oligarch-pals. So officials would really rather avoid having to go down this road. But the prospect of genuine, actual, authentic unrest in the streets, and the wrath of Beijing that would follow, overrides everything.
Plus, our bureaucrats – like all sentient beings – hate the Liberals, too. So this punch-up could be deliciously one-sided. Even if Miriam Lau and Co are proposing HK$24 as an opening gambit, with a view to conceding a few bucks more later on, they could be seriously disappointed. It might be bad economics, it might be a band-aid, it might lose some jobs and it might be just an excuse not to address real problems. But can anything outweigh the sheer pleasure of seeing the Liberals being stomped on?