At a time when all sorts of businesses are facing hardships and the unemployment rate is on the rise in Hong Kong, the pay adjustment arrangement for the city's 180,000 civil servants has become an issue of great concern. The Hong Kong Chinese Civil Servants' Association (HKCCSA), the largest civil service union in the city, has suggested a three-year wage freeze for the entire civil service starting from this year but several prerequisites are also laid down in the proposal, including a two-year pause of the pay trend survey from next year onwards. In the face of internal and external adversities, Hong Kong's economy is unlikely to recover for a certain period of time. Any arrangement that allows a "pay rise despite the pandemic" for civil servants is unreasonable and will hardly be accepted by the public. The proposal of a wage freeze for three years appears to show a willingness to "ride out the hard times together" on the surface, but it is in essence a strategy for making gains tomorrow by making concessions today — an attempt to avoid salary cuts that would be based on the pay trend survey over the next two years. The public expect civil servants to ride out the hard times with them sincerely. If civil servants want to stop the pay trend survey whenever the survey puts them at a disadvantage, that will inevitably leave the public with an impression that they agree to our system only when it favours them, but will oppose it when it does not.
The annual pay survey conducted by the Pay Trend Survey Committee under the civil service is one of the major indexes of how the government should adjust the civil service payroll. The committee's work is to look at the levels of salary adjustment in private companies over the past year. According to the latest survey, the net pay trend indicators this year correspond to a pay increase of 1.15% for junior civil servants, 1.98% for middle-level civil servants and 1.68% for senior officers. Civil servants who have not reached the highest pay point of their salary band can still move one point up every year. If that part of increment is taken into account, theoretically some civil servants may even have a pay rise higher than what has been recommended.
The HKCCSA has proposed to the government a "3+3" plan. On the one hand, it suggests freezing the salaries of all civil servants for three years. On the other hand, it lays out three special arrangements, like compensating the civil servants with the pay increase recommended this year once the economy has recovered. It also proposed suspending the pay trend survey for two years from next year onwards. Still, some other civil servants' associations show reservations about a salary freeze.
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong government has implemented measures to "support the economy and safeguard jobs" even though that would cost the fiscal reserves hundreds of billions of dollars. This year's budget even has an unprecedented deficit. To the employees of many private companies, it will already be a great blessing if they can be spared from layoffs or wage cuts. Civil servants are already much luckier than a lot of wage earners because they have a lifelong secure job. If any civil servants' association still wants to make up excuses for a "pay rise despite the pandemic", the public will inevitably question why they are spared the hardship when other members of society are having such difficult times.
The HKCCSA's suggestion that the pay trend survey be suspended for two years also invites doubts about its sincerity when speaking of "riding out the hard times together". The pay trend survey is a "lagging indicator". If the survey is not suspended over the next two years, it is highly possible that the net pay trend indicators will be negative for two years in a row. Not only might the civil servants be subjected to a wage cut for two years, but it is also likely that the cut next year will be very significant. The adjustment of civil service pay in line with the pay trends of private companies should be a mechanism that allows adjustments in both directions. If civil servants demand the government follows the pay increase of the private sector in times of economic boom but suspend the survey when there is an economic downturn, that will be no different from guaranteeing them "only upward but no downward adjustments" of salaries.