We could all end up paying for the civil servants' party

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am

I raised concerns on their [civil servants'] behalf but I got very little support from the major parties ... So civil servant unions were very disappointed, and they realised it's really time that they should have their own representatives.

Regina Ip, chairwoman,
The New Same-Old-Has-Beens Party,
SCMP, March 21

And this complaint that senior civil servants had to take a small pay cut last year was made in the same interview in which Regina said: 'We are more concerned with improving the business environment ... than protecting the interests of individual sectors.'

But maybe just a teensy-eensy-weensy little bit concerned with protecting a certain sector, Regina? Perhaps it might be the one from which you came? How unusual it would be for a political party to protect its own.

Let's put civil service pay into perspective. The last time it was properly done was in 2003 in a comprehensive survey by human resources consultants Watson Wyatt, commissioned by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. It showed that on a like-for-like basis, taking pay and perks together, civil servants were 229 per cent better paid than their closest private sector counterparts. For the upper ranks, the disparity was even greater. I repeat, 229 per cent more than, which means 3.29 times as much as people who do not feed at the public trough.

These findings were so embarrassing to the government that both Watson Wyatt and the chamber of commerce felt themselves compelled to ... ahem ... interpret ... the figures by stressing non-perks pay and pretending that any civil servant is worth more than a private sector counterpart. Stands to reason, you know. But the full findings were still published.

It was never done again. In fact, the bureaucrats then had a brain wave. They commissioned their own pay study for a crucial round of pay increases a few years later and they hired Watson Wyatt for the job.

Would Watson Wyatt be interested in future good relations with the government?

Yes, it would be. It duly cringed in embarrassment at its earlier findings, gladly submitted to the requirement that it not look at perks and agreed that of course civil servants are worth more than ordinary human beings. Stands to reason. Anyone can see that.

Thus there was no further mention of 229 per cent. The new figure came out somewhere in the low teens, which allowed Donald and company to pronounce, after a one year pay freeze, that things were really back in balance and civil servants should not be impoverished forever. It's against the Basic Law, too, you know.

Regina's complaint now leads me to wonder whether the income disparity with the private sector may not have narrowed in recent years. Perhaps the true figure now is only 227 per cent more than the private sector, maybe as low as 225 per cent.

And you can always find civil servants who moan that they don't get investment banking style bonuses, as if all employees in the private sector were investment bankers or as if civil servants had even a tenth of their drive and initiative.

But the most interesting thing here is Regina's new role as shop steward Sister Ip, voice of the proletariat, union stalwart of the public sector. Give us a chorus of Solidarity Forever, Regina. Let's hear that ringing refrain of For the union makes us strong echoing from the rafters of the local union hall.

Let me also introduce you to Lee Cheuk-yan. He's actually a fellow legislator and represents the Confederation of Trade Unions. I can picture you now, arm in arm on the march down Queensway every second Sunday, banners held high. You could do wonders together.

Surely your own union members would not regard such associations as beneath them, would they? Do these distressed senior civil servants who now get slightly less pay (although no less perk) really think their rallying cry of 'Gimme more money' too ethereal and high-minded for their fellow citizens?

I only ask, you see, because experience abroad shows that private sector union membership is dwindling almost everywhere while public sector union membership continues to grow and strengthen.

If the civil servants for whom you speak, Regina, were now to secure their own functional constituency seat in the Legislative Council, which I take you to mean by 'should have their own representatives', they would constitute one of the more powerful public sector unions on the planet.

I can't see Lee Cheuk-yan betraying his ideologies to horse trade his vote in Legco but a civil service union does not have principles, only self interest. It would soon have a 'Vote for Sale' sign over its door, just like any of those rotten boroughs in the chamber.

And then a 229 per cent pay disparity would only be a launch platform for lift-off.