A Hong Kong group advocating for increasing workers’ living wages has said the government’s decision to freeze the minimum wage at HK$37.5 (US$4.84) was “totally disrespectful” to grassroots workers – especially to cleaners working on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Street cleaners in Hong Kong
Street sanitation workers cleaning a street in Sham Shui Po. File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Hong Kong’s statutory minimum wage will remain frozen, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-Kwong announced at a press briefing on Tuesday. The decision was made by the Chief Executive in Council based on a recommendation by the Minimum Wage Commission. It is the first time since the city introduced the minimum hourly wage that it remained frozen, despite inflation.

Wong Yu-loi, a representative of the People’s Alliance for Living Wages, told HKFP that the government’s decision will disproportionately affect cleaners, including those employed by outsourced government cleaning services: “All these workers are being paid around minimum wage or a little bit above,” Wong said. The freeze “is totally an insult to them.”

Law Chi-kwong
Law Chi-kwong. Photo: GovHK.

Law said the Commission “has considered that Hong Kong’s economy is in steep downturn, with high unemployment rate” in making its decision.

They should strike “appropriate balance” between preventing overly low wages and the loss of low income jobs, whilst maintaining Hong Kong’s economic development and competitiveness, he said.

Hong Kong’s unemployment rate hit a 16-year high of 6.6 per cent in the final quarter of last year, according to government figures released in January.

yau ma tei jordan covid lockdown street cleaning hygiene
Workers cleaning the streets in Yau Ma Tei following a two-day Covid-19 lockdown. File Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP

The Commission is set to review the hourly minimum wage level at least once every two years, with its next recommendation to be submitted in October 2022. This means the minimum hourly rate set in 2019 will likely remain unchanged until 2023 after coming into effect on May 1.

Wong said the Alliance had proposed that workers should receive a minimum of HK$54.7 per hour. “This rate is statistically reasonable, and it barely reaches the daily necessity and living standard of Hong Kong,” he said. “It is totally unimaginable that wages will be frozen for four years.”

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.