A pro-Beijing party has urged Hong Kong to increase its minimum hourly wage, which has been frozen at HK$37.50 for more than three years, to keep up with rising inflation.

The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions holds a petition calling on the government to increase the minimum wage on August 26, 2022. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Anthony Yau, the vice-chairperson of the Rights and Benefits Committee of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Union (HKFTU), led a petition calling for a wage hike outside the government’s Admiralty headquarters on Friday.

“The intention of a minimum wage is to… protect the grassroots who lack bargaining power, ensuring that they are fairly paid for their hard work and defending their dignity,” Yau said.

“But the rate, frozen at HK$37.50, is not only unable to keep up with inflation, but is even lower than the amount someone would receive under the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance,” he added, referring to the government’s welfare system.

Yau added that when Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong on July 1 to celebrate the city’s 25th anniversary of its Handover from Britain to China, he said that he hoped “every citizen would firmly believe that as long as they work hard, they can change their families’ lives.”

“The [current] minimum wage level runs counter to Chairperson Xi’s wishes for society,” he said.

The city’s minimum wage was introduced in 2011 at HK$28. It is reviewed every other year, and was revised upwards at each opportunity until 2021.

Anthony Yau, vice-chair of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Union’s Rights and Benefits Committee, on August 26, 2022. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

During the most recent review last year, then-welfare secretary Law Chi-kwong said the government had decided to “maintain” the current wage, citing an uncertain economic outlook and high unemployment rate.

An advocacy group said at the time that the freeze was “totally disrespectful” to grassroots workers, especially cleaners working on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The current minimum wage, therefore, has remained unchanged since the increase in 2019.

According to census data, around 14,300 people – working mostly in cleaning, food and beverage and security – in Hong Kong earned the minimum hourly wage of HK$37.50. Around 294,500 earned less than HK$45.

A street cleaner. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Wong Chi-hung, the vice-chairperson of the Hong Kong General Union of Security and Property Management Industry Employees, said minimum wage workers have low education levels and many are elderly.

“They lack bargaining powers and are only able to see their salaries increase through a rise in minimum wage,” he said.

Unlike the minimum wage, civil servants’ salaries are reviewed annually. Following freezes in 2020 and 2021, authorities approved a 2.5 per cent increase for civil servants across all salary bands in July.

2023 review

The Minimum Wage Commission, whose recommendations inform the minimum wage adjustments, will submit its report to the government by the end of October ahead of a review next year. In the past, revised minimum wages have come into effect on May 1.

The commission launched a six-week public consultation exercise that ended in May to “invite views from various sectors of the community.”

Anthony Yau of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions hands a petition letter to a representative of the Labour and Welfare Bureau on August 26, 2022. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

According to the commission’s website, it aims to “maintain an appropriate balance” between “forestalling excessively low ages and minimising the loss of low-paid jobs,” as well as sustain Hong Kong’s competitiveness.

A representative from the Labour and Welfare Bureau was present at the press conference to accept a petition letter from Yau.

Yau told HKFP that the HKFTU does not have a specific figure in mind as to what the increase should be, but said it should be in keeping with inflationary trends.

NGO Oxfam said in a 2018 report that an hourly wage of HK$54.70 was needed to ensure a “decent standard of living” in Hong Kong and help families escape poverty.

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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.