Top advisers to Hong Kong’s outgoing leader have defended a decision to postpone discussions on a controversial proposal to raise civil servants’ salaries by up to a record 7.26 per cent, despite union calls for the matter not to be left to the next government.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, unexpectedly delayed a discussion on the annual pay adjustment on Tuesday.
The Civil Service Bureau also abruptly cancelled a scheduled meeting with unions on Wednesday, according to members of two groups.
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Multiple sources suggested the government might want to throw the hot-potato issue to the new administration under John Lee Ka-chiu, to be sworn in on July 1.
An insider confirmed the pay rise was originally on the agenda for discussion at Exco’s Tuesday meeting. “It was taken out because it’s too controversial. The chief executive said let’s not discuss it yet because there’s no consensus within the government,” the source said.
While civil service groups urged the current administration to make a decision on the pay rise, Exco member Ronny Tong Ka-wah on Wednesday said it was a responsible move to leave it for the next administration to discuss, especially as next week’s Exco meeting could be the last in the current term, and newcomers could soon be replacing existing members.
“This concerns the civil servants of the next term of government, so it’s legitimate for us to leave it for now especially if more time is needed,” he said.
Another Exco member, New People’s Party leader Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, argued that the issue was not as contentious as one might suggest.
“It’s not that much of a hot potato. Seven per cent is impossible, even senior government staff know this. The commercial sector and workers would strongly criticise it and I think civil servants will be reasonable,” she said.
Business sector lawmaker Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, also an Exco member, denied they were “leaving a mess for the next administration to clean up”, saying it was appropriate to listen to different views before making a decision.
Lam added that as the pay adjustment would be backdated to April, there was no financial difference between passing it now or several weeks later.
“The most important thing is to come up with a proposal that is acceptable to all, and which will not cause much pressure to businesses that have gone through a hard time in recent years,” he said.
Political analyst Sonny Lo Shiu-hing said the pay adjustment would require hard decisions from the city’s leadership, as some civil service groups wanted a mild to generous rise, while businesses, legislators and critics had strong reservations.
“It will be difficult for incoming leader John Lee and his new Exco to decide whether to increase civil servants’ pay and if yes, by how much. There will be intense public discussion, so it needs to be fully justified,” he said.
“The current Exco should not be pre-empting Lee’s administration, as it will be the next term of government which is doing most of the explaining to the public and Legco.”
However, Lee Fong-chung, chairman of the Hong Kong Senior Government Officers Association and a member of the Senior Civil Service Council, said Lam’s administration should not leave the issue for her successor.
“It would be quite strange to do so because the civil service’s pay adjustment mechanism has been well-established, and should not be affected by the transition of governments,” he said.
The annual salary adjustment is governed by six factors, including inflation and pay trends of private companies.
Several Exco members had earlier expressed shock over the suggestion that senior civil servants receive an increase of as much as 7.26 per cent, which would be a record. Some said the raise would be hard for residents to accept, given that more than 200,000 people had lost their jobs or were currently underemployed.
Hong Kong Civil Servants General Union chairman Fung Chuen-chung also said that it might not be a “good thing” for the new government to let political considerations affect salary adjustments.
“We should let our civil servants and friends know that it is actually a matter of trust and vigilance. It should be a reasonable increase so that our civil servants can have a good start when the new government starts,” Fung told a radio station.
Fung noted that while there might be different views within the government on the salary increase, the relevant mechanism had been in operation for many years and there was no dispute among civil servants on this aspect.
Lee also defended the performance of civil servants, who were hit by some criticisms during the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, saying many of them had done their utmost in helping the city cope with the outbreak.
“It was a bit chaotic at first, but things started to calm down in March and April. Many civil servants have done things behind the scenes to support the medical professionals, and maintain public services amid the pandemic,” Lee said.
The proposed adjustment is based on data collected from 111 private companies. Discounting annual civil service pay increments for seniority, employees in the lower, middle and upper salary bands could get increases of 2.04 per cent, 4.55 per cent and 7.26 per cent respectively.
Human resources experts and small business bosses have called for a revamp of the method used to determine the pay rises, saying it placed too much emphasis on top firms and that year-end bonus or double pay – common in the private sector – should not be factored in as civil servants already enjoy lucrative salary packages.
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