The price of fairness

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 November, 2010, 12:00am

The introduction of the wage floor in this city has made international headlines. Back in July, The Economist called it 'Milton's paradise lost'. More recently, Joseph Stiglitz openly gave his support for the move. Economists have long argued over its pros and cons, but the disastrous predictions of some and the utopian projections of others have all been humbled by reality. The consensus is that - alongside other economic factors and because a minimum wage does not make the world operate in a vacuum - it will not cause an avalanche of unemployment or miraculously lift the poor out of poverty.

There's no need to sugar-coat this: there will be winners and losers, only there won't be as many as either side is predicting. It will help those low-paid workers with salaries close to the minimum wage level but it will also cause some job losses and permanently exclude some people from the labour market. For businesses with small profit margins dependent largely on labour, consumers will be picking up part, if not all, of the tab. Some of these businesses will close down, while others with more efficient business models will fill in the gaps. Simply put, it isn't going to be as bad as some have predicted and it isn't going to be as great as others - you'll find most politicians in the latter lot - have claimed.

And this is because, somewhere in the discussion, the real meaning of setting a wage floor has been lost. Setting a statutory limit on how low wages can go is a society's decision - albeit a reluctant one for some members - to define what it considers to be 'fair', and it's just part of our values shifting away from being solely profit-focused.

So, in this sense, setting a legal wage floor isn't a novelty for Hong Kong. If we look at anti-gender and family-status discrimination laws, which have been in force for more than a decade now, we know that they are there because times have changed. Among other things, we no longer tolerate employers discriminating against women, or those of either gender who have care-giving roles in the family, just because they can't maximise their profit margins by maximising labour productivity. There isn't a price tag for family life but, in today's Hong Kong, we deem it fair to have one. We will continue to re-examine our values, weigh our non-monetary costs against monetary gains, redefine what we see as fair, adjust priorities and demand basic protections.

Surely, the current debate on a competition law and the upcoming examination of whether we should set maximum working hours will be a continuance of that.

It's for this reason that it is outrageous to see the debate over whether women doctors, due to maternity leave and family commitments, are to blame for the staffing woes of our public hospitals. I know of a young doctor who struggled with a non-friendly working environment while she was pregnant. Unfortunately, her story is a recent one and isn't unique. Paying lip service is not the same as honouring the commitment, which must include implementing family-friendly policies. The debate should be whether, after a decade of legally declaring ourselves non-discriminative toward women and recognising the needs of family care-givers, we have done enough to practise what we preach.

We should know that, by merely imposing a minimal wage, we will not make better employers out of those who have no conscience. And I have every confidence that, with the recent Cafe de Coral debacle, our news media will be the first to pounce on unfair employment practices. We should also know that, by making that commitment, we will have costs - both monetary and social - to bear.

In a broader sense, we have to support, via a better social safety net, those who will be forced out of the workforce. On a more personal level, when our property management companies seek to raise fees for building security, we should be ready to pay a little bit more for the men and women who keep watch over us and our property.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA