A Hong Kong lawmaker has questioned a proposed pay rise for top government officials, asking whether a salary increase was appropriate considering the wider economic conditions and the city’s high unemployment rate.

Lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Tik Chi-yuen, the city’s sole self-proclaimed non-pro-establishment lawmaker, said in a Legislative Council (LegCo) meeting on Monday that he understood the mechanism of reviewing government salaries in accordance with inflation.

“But the minimum wage is only reviewed once every two years and does not keep up with inflation,” he said. “The unemployment rate is so high, and there are so few employment opportunities for the grassroots and teens.”

The lawmaker, who represents the social welfare sector, asked whether a pay rise was “disjointed” from the concerns of society.

Tik’s comments followed a proposal to increase the salaries of top government officers by 2.6 per cent, to come into effect in July. Their wages are reviewed annually in line with inflation rates, but were frozen in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Without the adjustment, a LegCo paper read, their salaries “would be lagging behind the cumulative inflation in the past three years.”

Hong Kong’s Covid-hit economy saw months of business closures this year during the fifth-wave outbreak, as the government enforced strict social distancing measures and encouraged the public to stay home.

Unemployment in the retail, accommodation and food services sectors rose to 8.9 per cent between January and March 2022, up from 5.5 per cent before the fifth wave from October to December 2021.

With the pay increase, the chief secretary – the city’s second-highest ranking official – will earn a monthly salary of HK$396,000.

A street cleaner in Central. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The financial secretary, justice secretary and secretaries of the 13 bureaus will make between HK$357,150 and HK$382,600 a month.

The city’s minimum wage was introduced in 2011 at HK$28. It was adjusted upwards every two years, most recently in 2019 to HK$37.50, where it has remained. Following a biannual review, the government said last year that the minimum wage would be frozen in light of the Covid-related economic downturn, a decision one advocacy group called “totally disrespectful.”

‘All their savings are spent’

A social welfare group echoed Tik’s comments, urging the government to revise the minimum wage accordingly so that the city’s poorest can afford basic living costs.

“Why can [the government officials] get a pay rise, but not the grassroots?” Sze Lai-shan, deputy director of Society for Community Organization, told HKFP.

“Everything has become very expensive,” Sze said, adding that many low earners have been struggling to get by since the fifth Covid-19 wave began. “They cannot pay their rent and all their savings are spent. They have either lost their jobs or are underemployed, working just a few hours a day.”

Buildings with subdivided flats on Ma Tau Wai Road in To Kwa Wan. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

The vice-chair said the current minimum wage was far below what was acceptable, and that the government should consider raising it significantly to HK$54.70. The figure was cited by NGO Oxfam in a 2018 study as the monthly wage needed to “secure a decent standard of living” in Hong Kong.

At a press conference last week, lawmaker Kwok Wai-keung said Hong Kong’s minimum wage lagged behind the rest of the world and “creates” poverty in the city.

He said he hoped the incoming administration, led by Chief Executive-elect John Lee, would “comprehensively evaluate the existing minimum wage mechanism so it can better respond to the needs of the people.” The lawmaker also suggested that minimum wage be reviewed annually instead of every two years.

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to come into effect in July

. Their wages – which are reviewed annually – were frozen in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19.

Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.