For the people?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2007, 12:00am

The merger of the rail operations of Hong Kong's two rail companies is set to become a reality with the passing of the second reading of the Rail Merger Bill by the Legislative Council on Wednesday, pending a vote of support by MTR Corporation shareholders. The future of the two railways, as important components of the local transport system, concerns the livelihood of the entire population. It is thus not surprising that legislators have engaged in a heated and prolonged debate when scrutinising the bill.

Democratic Party legislators didn't have to come up with different reasons to oppose the bill; the most justifiable is that the move is tantamount to the sale of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation's assets to the MTR Corp at too low a price.

However, some legislators voted against the merger because of the proposed adoption of the KCRC's harsher penalties, which include up to six months' jail for passengers who swear. There is not much logic to such arguments, though.

First, the KCRC bylaws have existed for years. Why did legislators not oppose these laws, if they thought they were unreasonable, rather than lash out at the MTR Corp for proposing to adopt them? Second, the bylaws are also being enforced in many other public areas, including at Chek Lap Kok, and have been passed by Legco. It is puzzling that these legislators should now refute what they previously thought was right.

Another issue that concerns the entire population is the Executive Council's decision to offer a pay rise to civil servants. All political parties, except the Liberal Party, have welcomed the move. Despite its opposition, the Liberal Party is likely to vote for the rise in Legco.

I am in favour of the salary increase, but I am disappointed by the inconsistent remarks made by civil service groups. Prior to the announcement of Exco's offer, staff unions told the public they would be very happy with a rise, which would be unexpected.

But once the offer - of between 4.62 and 4.96 per cent - was made public, Hong Kong Chinese Civil Servants' Association vice-president Li Kwai-yin was adamant that all civil servants deserved 6 per cent.

Of course, civil service pay has long been a target of criticism. While there is nothing wrong with asking for a rise, civil servants must remember that every cent spent on them comes from the public. Their inconsistent remarks and high-profile demands harm their image, and also their credibility.

The government has also announced that the minimum wage of Hong Kong's foreign domestic helpers will rise by HK$80 a month. Yet, some people have objected to this paltry increase. The government cut the wages of foreign domestic helpers in 1999 and 2003. In 2003, their wage was reduced by HK$400 through a retraining levy imposed on employers. Although domestic helpers have received pay rises since 2005, their current monthly wage is still much less than that of 1997, when it was HK$3,860.

Most importantly, the government is now liable to accusations of racial discrimination, as the retraining levy targets only foreign domestic helpers. The accumulated levy income, which is unspent because of legal challenges, could top HK$3 million by the time the process has been exhausted. The administration should consider returning the money to domestic helpers, instead of spending taxpayers' money on unnecessary litigation.

Then we have the recent Legco public works subcommittee meeting, when some politicians again revealed their true colours. A few, who claim to be supporters of environmental protection, were absent or abstained during the voting of the funding for the dismantling and relocation of Queen's Pier.

Among these was Choy So-yuk, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, who said she was forced to abstain because she had been denied permission to vote against the funding.

However, I really doubt that the DAB would have her kicked out of the party if she had voted against the proposal.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator