Police should share the economic pain
People expect the police to walk the beat, not march on the streets. Last Sunday, police officers declined to join their colleagues from five other disciplined services to protest against pay cuts for some civil servants and a freeze for others. But yesterday, they threatened a much bigger rally of their own this weekend after pay negotiations with the government broke down. If the demonstration goes ahead, it will mark the first public police protest in more than three decades. As citizens, police officers have the same right to express grievances as others. But it is not a step they should undertake lightly. At a time when many people are suffering job losses or pay cuts, the march is unlikely to attract much public sympathy.
Hong Kong police have a well deserved reputation as being Asia's finest for the crucial role they play in preserving our city's peace and prosperity. Officers generally enjoy support from the public. It is, therefore, important to maintain police morale, for which reasonable pay and perks are a key factor. But police officers are effectively pushing for a pay rise during a severe economic downturn. Politically, such a move is not feasible. Nor can it be justified in the current economic environment.
Yesterday, the Executive Council endorsed a pay cut of 5.38 per cent for more than 18,000 senior civil servants, including top police officers. The salaries of middle and lower ranking staff will be frozen. However unpalatable this may be, civil servants, uniformed or not, need to understand they cannot expect to be shielded from the downturn, which has caused much hardship in the community. Sharing the pain is the only equitable solution; it has to be across the board. Therefore, police cannot expect to be exempt by arguing the nature of their profession is different from that of other civil servants.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has rejected a request from police staff associations to launch an independent review into a pay trend survey, which formed the basis of the pay cuts and freeze. Such a review would be a futile exercise. Let there be no illusion for police staff members - the public fully supports a pay cut for civil servants and a voluntary cut by top ministers and their deputies. If anything, many want to see much steeper cuts, so the moderate levels being introduced are designed to strike a balance.
From the police's perspective, it is easy to understand why many officers feel disgruntled. A grade-structure review for the disciplined services released in November recommended revising the pay scale, which would effectively amount to a moderate pay rise for most officers. The government then stalled for months without giving them a definitive answer. What top ministers did provide was a rather vague promise that a decision would be made when the economy turned positive. Then a government pay trend study was released in May. Within weeks, a pay cut and freeze were announced. With some justification, police staff representatives have accused the administration of being quick to cut wages but slow to revise the pay scale.
Exco is now committed to making a decision on the recommendations of the grade-structure review by September. This represents a significant compromise by the administration. By that time, the economy will probably have improved, thus putting pressure on Exco to approve the review and therefore a pay rise for the police. That would effectively cancel out the cuts and the freeze many disciplined officers now face. Police should relent and wait for the September decision, and not risk provoking a public backlash.