Promoting living wage in Hong Kong

December 28, 2018 10:55
Even if the government doesn’t want to do it, civil society can still push for enforcement of living wage through joint efforts of various organizations, writes Shiu Ka-chun. Photo: HK Govt

Recently, Oxfam Hong Kong and the Centre for Quality of Life under the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese University jointly published the “Hong Kong Living Wage Report”, which suggested that the living wage in our city be set at HK$54.7 per hour.

Article 23 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that “everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”

Given that, the report believes Hong Kong should strive for this goal in the course of its social development.

Unfortunately, the reality is, the government would rather establish the Working Family Allowance (WFA) than raise the statutory minimum wage.

That said, it would be unrealistic for anyone to expect that the SAR administration would promote the living wage in the short run, i.e. the minimum level of income necessary for a working person to meet his or her basic everyday life needs.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean the public will have to capitulate on this issue.

It is because even if the government doesn’t want to do it, civil society can still push for the enforcement of the living wage through the joint efforts of various organizations, including local churches, social welfare organizations, and even some kind-hearted business corporations.

As long as there are still employers in Hong Kong who are dismayed at the suffering of the working poor, and who believe that the hard-working grass-roots employees deserve a more dignified life, it would be possible for us to launch the living wage movement from within our community.

The experience of the UK may provide us with some useful insights as to how we can promote living wage in Hong Kong in a bottom-up fashion.

The living wage campaign of the UK originated from a civilian organization known as the “Citizens UK”, which was founded in 1996 with a view to organizing different civic organizations to act together and strengthen the civil society.

In 2001, Citizens UK held a meeting in East London in the presence of representatives from local churches, mosques, schools and community organizations.

At the meeting, the delegates generally agreed that low income had affected the communities that they were concerned about, and that the then minimum wage set by the government was unable to guarantee the average British employee the most basic quality of life.

At that time the statutory minimum wage in Britain stood at only £3.7 per hour. As a result, a lot of grass-roots workers had to work two or even three jobs at the same time in order to make ends meet.

According to local university studies, in order to allow the working population in the UK to lead a decent life, the minimum wage had to be raised to at least £6.4 per hour (or roughly HK$71).

It was against such a background that a living wage campaign spearheaded by average British citizens was unleashed in London.

The campaign quickly gathered momentum and soon snowballed into a nationwide movement.

In response to the movement, the British government introduced the “National Living Wage” (NLW) in 2016 that was aimed to guarantee workers aged 25 or above a decent quality of life.

However, the level of the official NLW still fell short of that of the civilian living wage, and therefore failed to stop the nationwide campaign for a “real living wage” from continuing to grow.

And the living wage campaign in the UK has finally borne fruit in recent years. As of now, more than 4,700 British business corporations, hospitals, universities, banks, accounting firms, hotels, food companies and some other entities are willing to pay their employees the living wage.

Now let’s get back to Hong Kong.

Even though the government has set up the Minimum Wage Commission (MWC) that directly answers to the Chief Executive and the Executive Council, it appears the body is leaning more towards facilitating “dehumanized” economic development rather than working toward ensuring that the basic wage level in the city is sufficient to guarantee grass-roots workers a decent life.

In 2017, the annual GDP per capita in Hong Kong exceeded HK$360,000.

To put that in perspective, if that amount of GDP is spread evenly among the population, every Hong Kong citizen would be able to get HK$30,000 per month.

As such, given the city’s high level of economic development, it would be a complete irony if the average workers still cannot earn a monthly salary that is enough to support their families.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 24

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

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Legislative Council member