Fans of disharmony in the Big Lychee sit on the edge of their seats viewing with eager anticipation the growing ructions over Hong Kong’s proposed minimum wage. The Provisional Minimum Wage Commission mentions social harmony as one of the ‘other relevant considerations’ it must mull over as it hears emotional stakeholders’ wildly differing and irreconcilable opinions on the lowest level of pay employers should be legally allowed to offer. Its task is to weigh them up and recommend an hourly sum everyone likes. The minimum wage bill, which officials would like to see passed before the Legislative Council starts its summer break in July, will stir up conflict before it even comes into law.
This is one of those rare public consultations where officials have not decided the result in advance. It is too hot a potato for our consensus-obsessed, ideologically barren bureaucrats to handle. So the PMWC must do it. Its non-official membership consists of two (pro-Beijing) labour union representatives, two bosses of big catering and retail chains, a clutch of well-meaning academics and, looking even more slightly out of place than usual, Sun Hung Kai’s Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong, property tycoon, evangelical Christian and Noah’s Ark fan.
The property tycoons are fairly laid back about the minimum wage; it won’t affect their bottom lines much. The employers that will bear the brunt are the restaurants, shops, security and cleansing companies. The opening bid was made by Tommy Cheung, the legislator representing the catering industry, who opined that HK$20 an hour seemed about right. This is about as rock-bottom as wages currently get; any lower and you’re better off collecting cardboard and food scraps in the market. Even his fellow representatives of business interests disowned the suggestion, for which he quickly made a sniveling apology. He and his colleagues have now suggested HK$24.
At the other end of the scale, the pro-democracy labour unions are demanding HK$33. At that rate, caterers warn, many basic food places serving office workers and the like will either have to boost their prices and thus reduce secretaries and clerical assistants to penury, or simply shut down. They don’t mention other possibilities, such as lower profits for themselves or – more realistically – for the grade B commercial landlords whose rental demands are a much bigger overhead than labour.
One person, Lam Woon-kwong, says a lower minimum wage for the disabled could be OK. We might consider raising an eyebrow before strolling past this rather distasteful idea before we realize that he is… chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission. At least he isn’t suggesting gassing them.
Libertarian groups predictably foresee nothing but doom arising from a minimum wage. It will result in mass layoffs, because – as we all know – white-collar workers will start cleaning their own office toilets, and middle-class housewives in fancy housing complexes will mount their own late-night security patrols. Also it will be a foul interventionist assault on Hong Kong’s pure and virginal free-market tradition, except that laissez-faire has been eroding ever since bubonic plague forced Victorian-era colonists to levy taxes to dig sewers. With state-owned enterprises like the Mortgage Corporation and the Trade Development Council throttling free enterprise, and government picking lucky winners to form new economic pillars with cheap land giveaways, we are halfway to corporatism already.
No, the only danger is that the vested interests on the PMWC will cancel each other out, and the genius professors of economics and sociology will come up with a proposed figure that, miraculously, leaves both sides less than seething. “Twenty eight bucks an hour!” they might proclaim, and, after much muttering and deep, disheartened sighing, both employers and labour activists will mumble a resigned “OK”. It would be such a letdown.