Thinning blue line

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 October, 2008, 12:00am

Ask any police officer, and they will tell you that the 'thin blue line' is what stands between law and disorder, between social harmony and discord. Ask any Hong Kong officer and they may also tell you they believe that line is stretched to breaking point.

The force that prides itself on the label of 'Asia's Finest' is embroiled in a debate with the administration over new pay scales, the outcome of which, many officers believe, will shape the police service for better or worse for years to come.

It is a debate that has united the different police staff associations in a way that no issue has in recent years - and one they say has stirred deeper feelings and done more to damage staff morale than anything else in two decades.

'Our members' patience is not inexhaustible and our officers are now at a tipping point,' said Tony Wong Chi-hung, chairman of the Superintendents Association, in a stark warning after three frustrating and seemingly unproductive meetings with the administration's advisory body, the Standing Committee on Disciplined Services Salaries and Conditions of Service.

His concern appears to be shared at all levels of the city's 27,000-strong force after talks broke off in clear discord at the end of last month. 'A fair deal [is] urgently needed to meet staff expectations and resolve the current morale issues stemming from the pay dispute,' said Josephine Lui, of the Hong Kong Police Inspectors' Association.

David Williams, chairman of the Overseas Inspectors Association, meanwhile, said morale was at its worst for a generation and predicted a 'huge crisis' as experienced officers retired and middle-ranking officers left the force in large numbers for other disciplined services or the private sector because of stagnant pay rates.

The issue that has stirred up such strong feelings is the long-awaited Grade Structure Review. Standing committee members were charged with recommending pay scales for police over the next six years - and, with only weeks to go before they publish their recommendations, the force is definitely not with them.

The staff associations, under the Police Force Council staff side, have a clear and united pay claim which they believe has the support of management. It would see the monthly pay of a constable increased from a HK$16,655-HK$23,125 range to a HK$16,665-HK$23,965 range, later rising to HK$24,924.

The starting pay for a sergeant would go up from HK$23,125 to HK$26,958 and a sergeant's maximum pay from HK$28,795 to HK$32,255. Station sergeants, meanwhile, would see their top pay rise from HK$37,265 to HK$41,500 while inspectors, now paid a top rate of HK$50,170, would get an average of HK$1,444 more a month.

For the force's senior officers ranging from chief inspectors to senior superintendents, who currently earn between HK$62,225 and HK$97,545 a month, the claim would see an average increase of HK$3,708 a month - taking the pay of the force's most senior superintendents above HK$100,000.

The pay claim - which the associations describe as 'affordable and equitable' as well as long overdue - would put an average HK$1,784 into the monthly pay packets of police officers and cost taxpayers just under HK$49 million a month.

However, what has become clear in the tense series of talks between officers and the standing committee last month is that two sizeable obstacles stand in the way of the pay claim's acceptance. One is the economic crisis and the other is the standing committee's indications that it favours a far more limited rise in pay scales.

While the committee insists its deliberations are continuing and its report is not ready for release, its members say they favour a one-point pay scale increment for some ranks which would see increases of a few hundred dollars a month for lower- and mid-ranking officers - way below the average HK$1,784 in the associations' claim.

Police officers fear that, when the committee's report is released in November, it will use the backdrop of economic gloom to reinforce its argument for a modest and partial pay review.

Mr Wong, of the Superintendents' Association, said it was questionable whether this was the 'right time for a pay claim' but pointed out that 'Hong Kong is a resilient place with a strong foundation for growth and unchanged GDP figure forecast'.

'The administration has the funding to support the right projects and that includes the police service,' he said. 'The policy address must include investment in people as well as pouring concrete. The fast response by the police to the rumours on the Bank of East Asia and the policing of the Olympics, the WTO meeting, and Sars all show why Hong Kong needs a professional and resilient police service.'

Mr Williams, of the Overseas Inspectors Association, argued: 'The public is in danger of being misled by this advisory body that, because there's a crisis with the financial bodies and the banks, it means there's a general economic crisis.

'Irrespective of the economic situation, a crisis in policing would be at the wrong time for everyone. If the economy were to plunge again, that's when you need the police the most.'

He warned of a potential crisis in the city's policing if pay scales were not upgraded, pointing out that a wave of senior officers would retire at the same time that many middle-ranking officers became eligible to claim their Civil Service Provident Funds (CSPF), which were set up in 2000 and mature in 2010.

'We have natural wastage because of the big recruitment of the late '70s and early '80s. If something isn't done to address the wage issue for these junior people, they are going to say 'OK, I haven't got a pension to tie me to the police force. I am going to take my CSPF and disappear to the private sector'.

'We are recruiting educated people now. We're not recruiting people who haven't got the nous to realise they're not going anywhere and nothing is happening. I foresee a huge crisis.'

Already, junior officers were quitting the force, Mr Williams said. 'We are seeing people go to other disciplined forces, particularly customs and immigration. They can leave as a constable and enter other services at inspector rank. For our guys, it's a very attractive proposition.'

A senior officer, who asked not to be named, said the biggest impact of the static pay scales had been at constable level.

'The starting pay for a police constable in the Metropolitan Police in London is #28,000 [HK$370,000] a year. Here the starting pay is around HK$16,000 a month. It means constables here are only getting around half the starting pay of their counterparts in London,' he said.

'If we want a police force to match our status as 'Asia's world city', we have got to pay for it. Otherwise, we are going to continue to see more good people leave at all ranks. Police officers are very unhappy but there's no question of a work to rule or any industrial action. Our professionalism and our sense of duty will always prevent any one of us from doing anything radical - and the administration knows that.'

The associations requested one more meeting with the standing committee - expected to take place this week - to press their case, but Mr Williams said he was not hopeful.

'It just appears we are talking to a brick wall,' he said. 'We just get the feeling it's a perfunctory exercise for them to see us and say, 'Yes we've met with them'.

'They're all very nice but they don't even seem to have read some of the submissions not just from ourselves but from force management. The management is very strongly behind the staff on this one, which is also unusual in pay disputes with the government.

'The last time there was this depth of feeling would have been in the 1970s, when there was the dispute over the ICAC. Since then, police have never really been fed up with anything, but it has got back to that level now.'

A spokesman for the standing committee declined to comment on the allegations that the police pay claim was being disregarded and that morale within the force was being adversely affected. However, the spokesman said in a statement that staff morale was one of its considerations.

'The committee must [also] give due weight to any wider community interests, including financial and economic considerations, which in its views, are relevant,' the spokesman said.

'The standing committee has conducted five visits to the police force during which there were briefings, dialogues and experience sharing with frontline officers. The standing committee has also received submissions from both the management and the staff side including the recent submissions from the Police Force Council staff side in September. In addition, three informal sessions have specifically been arranged to exchange views on the Police Force Council's proposals.'

Whatever the recommendations in the standing committee's report, the debate over pay is likely to rumble on into next year. 'It is up to the chief executive and the administration to consider whether and, if so, to what extent the committee's recommendations should be accepted,' the spokesman added.

'We understand that the administration will conduct extensive consultation after receiving the committee's report. Departmental management and staff sides will have another chance to express their views during the consultation exercise.'