Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong
Foreign domestic workers make up around 3 per cent of the Hong Kong population. In 2013, there were some 320,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, of which 50 per cent were from the Philippines, 47 per cent from Indonesia, and the rest from Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Hong Kong law states that such workers must reside with their employers. Their wages are subject to a statutory minimum of HK$4,010 per month from September 30 last year. There have been several high-profile court cases in which domestic workers have alleged torture and abuse at the hands of their employers. According to a 2013 report by Amnesty International, Indonesian migrant domestic workers are at risk of serious human and labour rights violations in Hong Kong.
A wage that's affordable, and affords a decent life
Hong Kong is wealthy. On a global ranking of average per capita income, it stands seventh out of 181 economies, beside Switzerland, a notch below the US, and above Ireland, Canada, Australia and Britain. With such riches, all residents should be able to live decently with dignity. Yet some of the salaries touted in the continuing debate on a minimum wage would be considered by many to hover around poverty levels.
Several major labour unions have called for HK$33 an hour. The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce is talking about HK$24 or HK$25. One lawmaker controversially suggested HK$20. The HK$33 figure is the highest being forcefully put. Not accounting for travelling and lunch costs, this gives an employee working eight hours a day for 26 days a month HK$6,864. This is below the Hong Kong Council of Social Service's poverty line for a single-income, two-person household. Such a rate would give 439,000 workers a pay rise; it would cost employers HK$8.17 billion a year. That sounds a burden, but it is a drop in the ocean of our HK$1.63 trillion annual gross domestic product. Per resident, it works out at about HK$1,100.
Employers, however, contend that such a salary is untenable. It would certainly affect some businesses more than others. Many restaurants, for example, pay their frontline staff between HK$20 and HK$25 an hour. A balance needs to be struck. A minimum wage of HK$24 an hour would benefit a relatively small number of people and not make much difference to their lives. A much higher level, however, might curb the entrepreneurial spirit that has been a key to Hong Kong's success.
The provisional minimum wage commission will take a number of factors into account before setting the level, perhaps as early as July. It should be guided by fairness. The level should be one that businesses can pay. But it must also achieve the overriding objective of introducing such legislation - enabling workers on the lowest incomes to enjoy a decent life.