Common sense triumphs in Cafe de Coral pay debacle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am

The minimum wage law, enacted in July, will soon be finalised. But who would have expected a member of the Provisional Minimum Wage Commission, tasked with advising the chief executive on the initial statutory minimum wage rate, to do something that could sabotage the scheme?

In order to lessen the impact of the new law on his company, Cafe de Coral chairman Michael Chan Yue-kwong proposed raising workers' pay only if they gave up their right to a paid lunch break.

How ingenious! Was Chan trying to demonstrate how to be the meanest bullying boss? Or was he trying to say that where there's a will, there's a way?

Many companies in Hong Kong, especially those in the catering sector, pay workers for their meal time.

To make things worse, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung initially defended Chan, saying the company had not broken any law because there is no statutory requirement that employers pay staff for the time they spend on their meal breaks. Therefore, he said, the government could not step in.

As the ultimate defender of labour rights, Cheung should have done a lot more than simply regurgitate the law.

The law, of course, is not 100 per cent foolproof, so the government must do all it can to make sure no one can circumvent it. A by-the-book approach will only encourage more abuse by unscrupulous employers.

Cafe de Coral was clearly trying to squeeze all possible benefits for workers by exploiting legal loopholes to reduce overheads.

Cheung is not only a senior government official, he is an accountable political appointee. It hurts to see that such a senior member of the administration has so little political intelligence.

Cafe de Coral's proposal angered the majority of Hongkongers, who sympathised with the workers. The media, political parties, students and netizens all condemned the fast food chain and threatened to hold a city-wide boycott of the company this week. The boycott was supported by 33 labour and community organisations. Schools were urged not to renew their cafeteria contracts with the company. The chain operates canteens at five universities in Hong Kong.

In the face of this widespread protest, the company made a sudden U-turn and dropped the plan. Thank goodness - fairness and justice triumphed in the end; common sense ruled.

Cafe de Coral must learn from this fiasco and figure out a way forward in rebuilding relations with its staff as well as its corporate image.

To a certain extent, Chan should be complimented for responding to public opinion, admitting fault and taking appropriate measures to avert a crisis.

Maybe we should also thank the chain for setting an example for other employers not to follow. The zero-tolerance public reaction may have scared off a lot of potential offenders.

Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, the lawmaker for the catering sector, had earlier urged the public to understand the impact of the minimum wage on businesses. He said that a rate of HK$28 per hour would see about 30 per cent of employees in the industry - or 62,400 people - get a pay rise, which would place a heavy burden on companies.

A price floor for labour is more than just a minimum payment for their work. It's about fair treatment. We should remember that wages are fundamentally a moral issue. Having a fair minimum wage shows that a just and fair society is willing to draw a line to protect unskilled, low-paid workers.

The biggest loser is Cheung, who should have put pressure on Cafe de Coral at the outset. But, instead, he did nothing. He tried to cover up his incompetence by saying that the government's hands were tied by the law and was thus unable to intervene.

Immediately after Cafe de Coral dropped the plan, Cheung came out in support of the decision, saying companies that can do so financially should put the benefits of staff first and try to support a fair minimum wage.

Had he made those comments at the start, he would have won a big round of applause from us all.

Cheung, whose popularity has taken a nosedive since the debacle, would do well to remember the saying that: 'All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing.'

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.