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Proposed Minimum Wage Law in Hong Kong Sparks Debate

  • Lindsay Cui

A proposed minimum wage law in Hong Kong has sparked opposition from the territory's influential business sector. Business executives say such a law would contradict Hong Kong's long-held trust in the market's ability to set salaries. But as VOA's Heda Bayron tells us in a report prepared by Lindsay Cui in Hong Kong, labor activists say low-skilled workers need to be protected.

Labor union leaders and some lawmakers say it is time for Hong Kong to have a minimum-wage law for low-skilled workers. They say current wages for janitors and security guards are not enough to pay living costs in one of the world's most expensive cities.

Hon Lee, the general-secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, says most low-skilled workers make only about $640 a month. Many of these employees work 10 hours or more a day, six days a week.

"Which is for sure not able to feed their family. So what we are proposing is to make sure that the economic restructuring will not hurt the low-skilled workers. In order to make the people have a decent wage and descent work, we are proposing the minimum-wage law," said Hon Lee.

The average monthly wage in Hong Kong is about $1,400.

While that amount is far higher than the wages millions of workers in Asia earn, the living costs in Hong Kong are high. Housing rents are among the most expensive in the world.

The business sector argues that a minimum wage would mean government intervention in Hong Kong's famously free market. The government, at the moment, only sets a minimum wage for foreigners who come to Hong Kong from countries such as the Philippines to take jobs as domestic help.

Nelson Chow, professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong, says a minimum wage would not hurt the image of Hong Kong as a free market. He says developed, capitalist countries such as the United States and Britain have set minimum wages.

"This is usually the excuse of the business sector saying that the government is going to pass a law on minimum wage law that would destroy the image as a free market system," he said. I think the business people do worry if it would open a floodgate once the government imposes a legislation of minimum wage. That means the government is going to interfere in the market."

This television commercial announces the government's voluntary program to encourage companies to offer cleaners and security guards wages not lower than average market rates. So far the government says more than 700 companies have joined the program, called the Wage Protection Movement.

Stanley Lau, deputy chairman of Federation of Hong Kong Industries, says the government should encourage companies to join the minimum wage protection program. But he opposes a wage law.

"We have to educate the owner of the companies what is the social responsibility of the organization and they have to pay reasonable wage to the workers. We cannot expect they can change their mind in 24 hours. But as long as we give them [business owners] good education, and encourage them, maybe some recognition from the government, I'm sure they'll slowly support this movement eventually," said Lau.

The government offers no incentive to join the Wage Protection Movement.

Chow at the university says the movement is a compromise between the business sector and trade union leaders. He says the proposed minimum-wage law depends on whether the government wants to push against the wishes of the influential business sector.

"I think it's a warning to the business sector. In other words if they're not going to discipline themselves to provide a minimum wage to their workers, then the government is going to do something," he said.

The government says it will review the wage-protection movement in October, and again next year. Top officials say if the program does not yield satisfactory results, the government will propose legislation for a minimum wage.

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