Public Eye

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 July, 2010, 12:00am

Will Mrs Lau and her ilk break Cafe de Coral?

Public Eye thought we read it wrong at first. But no, there was no mistake. Restaurant cleaner Mrs Lau, 62, has been paid HK$22 an hour by fast-food chain Cafe de Coral for the past 17 years. No pay rise, no nothing. Here, read it again: Cafe de Coral has been paying her about HK$5,000 a month for nearly two decades for nine hours of work a day, six days a week. The fast-food chain's boss, Michael Chan Yue-kwong, says that if the minimum wage is set at a dignified level, his profits will fall. Let's see now, how much did his company make last year? Oh yes, it was more than half a billion dollars. Wonder where all that money went. Certainly not into the pocket of Mrs Lau. But why should it? She's just a dishwasher unaccustomed to shark's fin soup and abalone. She should be grateful Chan pays her almost enough an hour to buy a meal at his fast-food restaurants. But here's a question: in the 17 years that Cafe de Coral has been paying Mrs Lau HK$22 an hour, how many times has it raised its menu prices? And by how much has its profit margin jumped since it first hired her?

The billions built on paltry pay packets

The next time you read one of those scare stories by the business lobby that a decent minimum wage would bring economic ruin to Hong Kong think of Mrs Lau. Think also of the 7-Eleven chain, which pays some workers HK$20 an hour. And of the Wellcome supermarket chain, which thinks nothing of jacking up prices every week but pays its workers an average of just HK$23.90 an hour. Both are owned by Dairy Farm, which is part of Jardine Matheson. Think of the billions this conglomerate makes every year. Then ask yourself if Hong Kong's economic success should be based on companies like Cafe de Coral paying Mrs Lau slave wages for 17 years while it pockets half a billion in profits.

It's about time - but don't hold your breath

Don't be fooled - it's all just for show. Don't think that just because the police raided the offices of Henderson Land that they're finally gathering the guts to go after the big boys. The raids, carried out in connection with questionable flat sales by Henderson, were simply meant to appease an angry public fed up with the excesses of property developers. But as Public Eye has said before, don't expect anyone to be led away in handcuffs. The authorities use those handcuffs only on ice-cream vendors who dare to sell candy sticks as well, street buskers, and old men shining shoes in Central for a living.

You made a vow Donald, and we're watching

Our chief executive has stuck his neck out. He's promised to use the shady Henderson Land flat sales - now under police investigation - as reason to clean up our property market. He wants to get rid of the unfairness and lack of transparency home buyers now face. Gutsy words, but clearing the stench means taking on the tycoons. Does Donald Tsang Yam-kuen have the nerve for that? Henderson Land says selling multimillion-dollar flats to shell companies worth HK$1 is normal practice in Hong Kong. As we all now know, its boast of having sold a flat for a world record HK$439 million to a HK$1 shell company was never actually realised, raising suspicion it faked the sale to boost home prices. Dare our chief executive outlaw sales of pricey flats to shell companies? Dare he end the preposterous pressure tactic of big-time developers selling unfinished flats to anxious buyers in the middle of the night? Tsang says it should be easy to make buying a home fairer and more open since there are only a handful of big developers. But shouldn't he be asking himself why Hong Kong only has a handful of big developers? Is that in itself fair? We need answers, Mr Tsang. Public Eye will be watching to see if you keep your promise.