Noble legislator wants to protect the poor by keeping them that way

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am

We have an obligation to protect the less powerful

Tommy Cheung, legislator (catering)
Letters to the editor, August 11

What a noble sentiment. How wonderful to know that we have a functional constituency representative who bears in mind not only the narrow interests of restaurant owners, but also his responsibility to the poor and needy.

And how does Mr Cheung seek to protect the less powerful?

Why, by keeping their wages down.

Yes indeed, the way in which our worthy legislator thinks he can do a good turn for the underpaid women who wheel the trolleys around at yam cha is to make sure they remain underpaid. It is in their best interests and they should realise it rather than militating for higher pay. That would be bad for them.

OK, OK, I know his argument as well as you do. Raising their wages would mean that their employers can no longer afford their services and then these workers would have to be laid off and they would have no income at all.

It's nonsense, and we'll get to that, but first I want to dwell on what a gem of twisted thinking it is to declare in public that government can best do the poorly paid a good turn by making sure that they continue to be poorly paid.

Let's remember here that our government already does this indirectly for Mr Cheung and his constituents. Restaurant workers are predominantly tenants of public housing, where they pay very low rents. Restaurant owners know this and adjust their wage scales down accordingly. Thus a social service that the public purse provides to the needy has turned into a wage subsidy for employers. How ironic.

But back to why it's nonsense that the choice is between low pay or no job. Mr Cheung, it seems, inhabits a world where restaurant prices are fixed by edict from heaven and can never be changed. Every cent that goes in higher wages to staff can only be taken out of the returns that the restaurant owner puts in his own pocket.

I grant you that this state of affairs exists from time to time in normal competitive practice when there is customer resistance to price increases. But I don't see how it can exist when every restaurant has to meet the same minimum-wage target. They are all in the game together then and when the wage pressure forces up prices, it does so for all of them. No-one gains or loses a competitive edge against others in the game.

Of course, it may also be true that the extra cost makes the difference as to whether I want to go to a restaurant at all. It might just be enough to make me decide to eat at home.

But this would be an economic adjustment, not an economic failure. It happens all the time as societies grow more prosperous. Some jobs exist only because their very slight usefulness exceeds their even slighter pay. These jobs vanish as pay levels rise. People do new things, invariably more challenging and more productive ones. It's called growing up.

The important point here is that employment does not suffer in this process. Some jobs may be lost but other jobs are created. If more people choose to eat at home because they believe restaurants are becoming too pricey, then restaurant jobs may vanish but supermarket jobs will be created.

This may not please Mr Cheung and his constituents but it will certainly please his legislative colleagues in the retail trades. There is no real loss in this process. There is only change.

And the important point here is that no society can really move up to the next stage of development unless it makes this change. Prosperous societies with an equitable distribution of wealth have fewer menial jobs than poorer societies have.

This is not to everyone's liking, of course. Many people like to have servants do their dirty jobs for them and often convince their governments to allow in labour migrants in order to keep wages for such jobs down. We do it in Hong Kong. It creates growing income disparity and may stop us from ever becoming a 'world city'.

But the children with good jobs of people who had only dirty jobs a generation ago are certainly happy to see their society move up the development scale, and there are many more of such people than there are people who moan that good domestic help is hard to find these days.

It is this emerging middle class that will make Hong Kong's future.

But it will not emerge further if Mr Cheung and his like succeed in convincing our government that the way to help poor people is to keep them poor.