Pay freeze a blessing in disguise

Editorial | Mary Ma 3 Jun 2020

It's so strange to hear the Hong Kong Chinese Civil Servants' Association saying they were upset by the Executive Council's decision to freeze civil servants' pay this financial year.

One might think they would be happy, given that the rest of society in general have seen their pay cut.

Despite a pay trend survey showing civil servants should get a pay increase of less than 2 percent, with retrospective effect to April, private-sector wages have been slashed mostly by double-digit percentages.

In other words, the pay freeze amounts to a de-facto pay rise for the civil service - unless the unionists promise they would agree to a drastic pay reduction after the next pay trend survey that is bound to reflect this year's terrible pay conditions.

In 2021, private-sector wages will continue to come under pressure and create a dampening impact on the civil service pay review in 2022.

HKCCSA president Li Kwai-yin's disappointment over the pay-freeze decision was misleading. Except, that is, for her observation that it was based on political consideration more than facts and figures of the pay-review mechanism that the administration is expected to abide by in normal times.

But the situation facing Hong Kong is no longer ordinary.

Riddled with civil unrest, the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing's imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong and America's wide-ranging sanctions targeting the mainland and Hong Kong, the SAR faces a high level of uncertainty never seen since the Sino-British negotiations on Hong Kong's future.

Undoubtedly, Hong Kong is facing a perfect storm.

If not due to political considerations, I believe Exco would have gone ahead with a pay rise for the civil service largely in accordance with the findings of the pay-trend survey.

But this would have angered the public. It would also have put pro-government lawmakers in a difficult position given that many workers have already suffered big losses of income due to pandemic restrictions as their employers struggle to survive the recession.

The big question is: what should the government do with the pay review next year? That could be a crisis in waiting and, apparently, the administration yesterday tried to put down a cushion in advance.

The HKCCSA accused the government of being short-sighted, but its office bearers might also consider visiting an optician to check their eyesight.

My concern is that, after the next pay-trend survey is conducted and shows a major cut-back in private-sector payrolls, the administration might not follow suit to lower civil service pay accordingly.

Civil Service Secretary Patrick Nip Tak-kuen faces a dilemma. On one hand, he needs to keep the civil service team stable to maintain government functions at a time of high uncertainty. On the other hand, he must also consider whether the community would react strongly if civil service wages were not lowered accordingly.

Having decided to freeze civil service wages now, the government will be in a better position to strike a balance later.

Yesterday's decision was political - although it did not suit the agenda of the HKCCSA.

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