HK labor unions say new minimum wage ‘unreasonable’

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

HONG KONG — Labor leaders were dissatisfied with the city’s new statutory minimum wage rate at 32.50 Hong Kong dollars an hour, effective on May 1. They vowed to continue their fight for workers’ welfare.

The minimum wage is “unreasonable, especially if the worker is a breadwinner,” Wong Pit-man, head secretary of the Eating Establishment Employees General Union, said last Saturday.

It is short by HK$7.2 from the proposal (HK$39.7/hour) of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, Ip Wai Ming, its deputy director, said Thursday.

Both labor leaders said the minimum wage is barely for survival, “while the government thinks it is enough for one person.”

The federation has its formula in computing the minimum wage to catch up with the inflation rate for a worker and a dependent to afford a standard living.

Since the government began implementing the statutory minimum wage policy in 2011, the HKFTU proposed an increase of minimum hourly rate to HK$33 from HK$28. In 2013, it was raised to HK$30 per hour.

For establishment owners such as M. Aslam, director of the Family Provision and Fast Food Co., HK$32.5 an hour is “still not enough,” considering the high prices of commodities and housing rent.

“No one will want the job. It’s good if it’s HK$40 (an hour),” said Lam, a regular employee of grocery chain, Wellcome, in Kowloon.

HKFTU Ip Wai Ming PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro
Ip Wai Ming, deputy director of Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, says workers are unhappy with the new minimum wage on Feb. 5 in Kowloon. PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro

On the contrary, the minimum wage increase “will benefit tens of thousands of low-income employees and encourage more people to join the labor market,” Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said in his policy address in January.

Hong Kong’s total working population rose to 3.92 million as of 2014 from 3.86 million in 2013, according to government statistical data.

“Just surviving,” minimum wage earners comprise 10 percent of the total number of workers in 2013 after the minimum wage rise, Ip said.

Most of them are cleaners, security guards and health care givers. One-third of them work part time, especially in catering industries, he cited.

Despite the enforcement of statutory minimum wage rate, Wong said workers in the Chinese catering sector only had 2 percent increase of average salary over the past decade.

A large number of workers out of some 8,500 members of EEEGU are underpaid, he said, having long working hours and poor working conditions.

He cited that pantry delivery and cleaning workers have an average salary of HK$8,000 to HK$9,000, dishwashers HK$10,000, waiters/waitress HK$11,000, and Chinese chef HK$18,000.

Meanwhile, not many employers would dare to pay below minimum wage as most citizens are familiar with the labor laws, Ip said. Majority of underpaid workers are immigrants, who are hired for constructions, banquets, and other informal jobs by unregistered agents, he added.

Seeking for higher wages and improvement of working conditions of underpaid workers, the EEEGU had lobbied their concerns to the labor and welfare department. They had also organized meetings with local news reporters to inform the public of their gathered data and cases, Wong said.

For instance, he said, some employers attempted to cut headcounts as an excuse from the minimum wage increase, or cutting paid meal breaks in order to conform with the new wage requirements.

While convincing its members in the government to yield to their demands, the federation will also take it to the streets, Ip said.

Some 5,000 workers will join a mass demonstration on May 1 to push for their proposed minimum wage increase, among other demands, Ip said.