Politicians asking for higher pay rarely get a sympathetic hearing from the public. Compared with the majority of the working community, they are thought to enjoy good salaries and generous allowances. Plus, it is often said, a relatively easy job.
What is often forgotten is that the allowances legislators are paid are not intended to end up in their pockets. The money goes on overheads, and often the largest segment of the $96,120 operating allowance Hong Kong legislators are paid is spent on staff salaries. Without backup from highly trained staff, legislators would not be able to carry out their duties efficiently.
With this in mind, the legislators' request to the Government for an increase to help them meet the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) payments for their employees is not unreasonable. But the Government does not agree. Officials told a subcommittee meeting on members' remuneration and operating expenses, that the money for these benefits was factored in when their pay-scale was reviewed in 1994. If they had over-extended their budget without bearing that in mind, they would simply have to make up the deficit out of their own pockets.
But is that a realistic response? Members' salaries are adjusted in line with inflation and, after months of deflation, they have taken cuts totalling more than seven per cent over the past two years.
So have most other members of the community, of course. But most employees are looking forward to a modest increase in the coming year, whereas the legislators are not asking for an increase in their personal pay.
The particular difficulty that the independent legislators face was illustrated by the plight of Emily Lau Wai-hing, of The Frontier, who has cut the pay of her three assistants by nine per cent because she has an operating deficit of $300,000 in running her three offices. Ms Lau now has six staff; previously she had seven. The additional burden of underwriting MPF payments and medical insurance meant cutting back on staff.
Her colleague, Cyd Ho Sau-lan, faces the same problem, and points out that she has 1.3 million constituents to serve on Hong Kong Island. With her budget stretched to the limit, she cannot do as she would wish and award her hard-working assistants a pay rise.
Funding is less of a problem for the bigger political parties who can pool resources and cut overheads. But this is not an option for the independents, and the people who pay the penalty are not relatively well-off politicians, but secretaries and researchers on a far lower pay scale. It is often said that electors get the politicians they deserve, but the SAR's small band of directly elected legislators are by and large a dedicated and hard-working group. They should be free to concentrate on Legco business without having to worry about how they can make ends meet.