An unhealthy approach to employee relations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 February, 2010, 12:00am

How do you turn a labour management problem into a disaster? Unfortunately, the experts on this are to be found at the Hospital Authority, which is not only one of Hong Kong's biggest employers but is also operating in an area that directly affects the public in times of stress.

The authority is currently contemplating plans to penalise employees who declined to take part in the allegedly voluntary pay cut imposed on senior staff at the beginning of the year. It has already established an undistinguished track record by threatening to sack any employee not agreeing to the cut, a threat that resulted in 16 doctors quitting and which was only settled after a public apology by Shane Solomon, the authority's head.

This is a complex matter because it arises out of a government decision to temporarily reduce the salaries of higher-paid staff to help Hong Kong out of the financial crisis. We shall set aside the embarrassing fact that this disruptive and troublesome temporary measure was a consequence of official panicking over public finances that proved unnecessary.

Meanwhile, bodies like the Hospital Authority, which are funded from the public purse, were obliged to follow the edicts that applied to civil servants. A unilateral pay cut would have meant a breach of contract so it was necessary to secure staff agreement. More than 98 per cent of the authority's staff agreed to the cut.

The majority who had to swallow the pay cut would rightly feel aggrieved if those who insisted on the enforcement of their contracts received preferential treatment. This, presumably, is why the dunderheads at the authority thought it would be a clever idea to punish the holdouts by denying them pay increases for the next five years and by denying increments to staff who receive satisfactory work assessments.

Even the authority concedes that this move could be of dubious legality, but a discussion paper presented to its board suggests it would be the best way to address the inequality between those who suffered a pay cut and those who did not.

The proposed solution gives new meaning to the word 'voluntary'. Unsurprisingly, it is making staff very angry. But the problem is deeper, because these employees are at the frontlines of health care and their morale has a direct impact on the service the public is likely to receive.

Unlike Solomon and a handful of other very senior officials at the top of the authority's bureaucracy, the frontline staff are not paid salaries that compare with the generous terms found elsewhere in the world. On the contrary, most are modestly rewarded for highly demanding and sensitive work.

The mindset of the senior bureaucrats is one of finding ways to punish those who have defied their wishes. They appear not to have considered the far better alternative of rewarding those who voluntarily agreed to reduced pay for a temporary period. Was any thought given to devising such a solution? Why, for example, is there no proposal to simply pay back the money taken away and even offer a modest bonus to those who volunteered to make the sacrifice?

Clearly, the volunteers are entitled to recompense for a blunder in the assessment of a massive public deficit which, as we learned from this week's budget, failed to materialise. Furthermore, what is wrong with an additional reward for co-operation? The sums involved are relatively modest, but the resulting benefits would be overwhelming.

A culture of devising punishments for defiance of unreasonable demands seems to permeate the Hospital Authority, which is showing itself to be incapable on a whole number of fronts, not least that of transparency over medical blunders.

There is a special imperative for public bodies to behave in a decent way when dealing with staff issues, to set an example for the private sector. The Hospital Authority appears to think that the big stick is the only way to keep its staff in line.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur