Public-sector pay rises are not the answer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2007, 12:00am

After organising demonstrations and taking leave collectively, social workers in Hong Kong finally launched a strike last week. The use of industrial action to fight for an improvement in remuneration by professionals is certainly legitimate in a free market economy. The significant point in this case is that the social workers wanted to exert pressure on the government, which in turn would be influenced by public opinion.

A few months ago, the government substantially raised civil service salaries, and the starting pay of a few categories of professionals. This prompted protests from doctors and teachers, who considered themselves unfairly treated.

Social workers also reacted angrily, demanding equal pay for equal work, and a peg on their salaries to those of civil servants. Social workers believe their salaries have been suppressed for too long. Their accumulated grievances explained the initial success of their mobilisation for a strike.

In order to exert pressure on the government to realise their objectives, social workers have to win the sympathy and support of the community. The recent strike by French transport workers failed mainly because the general public supported the government's reform programme.

Our government enjoys a considerable fiscal surplus and it is in a position to improve the salaries of public-sector employees to retain the good performers and to attract the best graduates. This is accepted by Hong Kong people. But while agreeing with a pay rise for social workers, they also demand a commensurate improvement in services.

To win the support of the community, social workers have to offer Hongkongers constructive proposals to ensure voluntary organisations use their resources better, to demonstrate that the profession also has the community's broad interests in mind. Apparently, they have not been doing that. They were politically sensitive enough, however, to make sure that frontline social workers maintained emergency services on the day of the strike, to avoid any serious inconvenience for the community.

This may all make the government more amenable to a pay rise. But, restoring the peg to civil service salaries and the principle of equal work, equal pay will be a more difficult task.

The reason is simple: the government has, for years, worked very hard to de-link the remuneration of public-sector employees from that of civil servants and it will strongly resist any reversal of its efforts.

If the administration gives in to the demands of social workers, other public-sector employees - such as university staff and Hospital Authority workers - will follow suit. The government believes that a major obstacle to reducing public-sector costs in the past was the inflexibility of its employees' salary structure.

There have been media reports recently about some voluntary organisations putting part of their government appropriations into their financial reserves to better prepare for 'rainy days' ahead. This, in turn, adversely affects the upward adjustment of staff salaries. Organisations adopting this practice should reflect on the impact this will have on staff morale.

Hong Kong's economy has reached a stage where growth will slow. Though the economy has improved in recent years, the government still has to tightly control rises in recurrent expenditure.

Given that the public sector is under pressure to reduce expenditure in the long-term, it cannot continue to rely on promotions and salary increases as incentives. It has to devise new ways to enhance its employees' sense of belonging and job satisfaction, through, for example more flexible staffing arrangements and more emphasis on teamwork. This is a serious challenge for our public-sector organisations.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong