Employees and employers have failed to reach a consensus on the statutory minimum wage level for next year. Whether the wage level should be revised upwards or frozen is now the government's decision to make. Under the regulations, the minimum wage level should be reviewed biyearly. In the past, it was usually adjusted to correspond with inflation over the previous two years and other factors. Thus, employees have reason to demand retroactive adjustments to safeguard the rights of grassroots wage earners. However, employers and some academics are worried about the continued economic downturn amid the pandemic and whether an upward revision of the wage level will add to the burden of employers. If employers have to lay off staff to control costs, the problem of unemployment will be exacerbated instead.
The statutory minimum wage policy was implemented in 2011. A minimum wage committee comprised of employees, employers and academics reviews the wage level every two years and submits recommendations to the government. In the past four reviews by the committee, all sides came to a consensus invariably despite some see-sawing in the negotiation process. The minimum wage increased from HK$28 to HK$37.5 after some twists and turns. This year, however, the committee has failed to achieve a consensus after two rounds of meetings, a situation that has never happened before. Employees have urged the government to intervene and persuade employers to accept wage rises. Most committee members, including employers and academics, incline to the view that it should be frozen. The ball is now in the government's court. If the authorities decide to freeze the minimum wage, it will be the first such action since the minimum wage policy came into effect.
At present, about 20,000 people in Hong Kong receive the minimum wage, most of them front-line grassroots employees such as cleaners and security guards. The pandemic has hit the economy hard, but rents and consumer prices have not dropped significantly, making the lives of grassroots citizens difficult. Take, for example, cleaners in public organisations. Most of them receive minimum wages and work eight to ten hours a day with a monthly salary of less than HK$10,000. Amid the pandemic, many companies have stricter cleaning and disinfection requirements, and the workload of cleaners has increased. Some companies, however, have not provided sufficient masks. If cleaners want to have several changes of masks at work, they will have to spend extra money to prepare the masks themselves.
Employers and the government have a responsibility to show more sympathy towards grassroots wage earners. Of course, the situation under the pandemic is very special, and the pros and cons have to be weighed up to decide whether the minimum wage level should be raised. The minimum wage level is a ''lagging'' indicator to a certain extent. Employees are proposing an increase to HK$40 so as to cover the inflation rate over the previous two years. However, the outbreak of the pandemic has complicated considerations. It is necessary to look both retrospectively and prospectively.
If the government believes that it must focus on the macroeconomic situation and unemployment and freeze the minimum wage level, it should consider other ways to support grassroots workers to reduce their burden in their daily lives. If the government decides to raise the minimum wage level despite the pandemic so as to cover the inflation over the past two years, it can take other measures to help affected employers cope with the pandemic and avoid a wave of layoffs and closures. In any case, the government needs to decide not only whether to raise or freeze the minimum wage, but also to consider the follow-up relief efforts and provide additional support for those whose interests have to be sacrificed