Pay trend surveys open to question

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong's 160,000 civil servants are in line for a pay rise again. A government-commissioned pay trend survey on the private sector suggests there may be increases of between 5.16 to 7.24 per cent for them. Such rises, which will be the biggest since the handover if approved by the government, will seem too generous to many people. Even civil service staff unionists admit they have been taken by surprise. Naturally, workers in the private sector who have not received pay rises at such a level will wonder if the survey has accurately reflected the situation.

In a stark contrast to the government's findings, a similar survey by the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resources Management found an average increase of only 1.9 per cent between January and October last year. The survey covered 97 companies, covering 139,000 employees, compared to the government's one, which covered 116 companies and 184,350 workers over 12 months from April, 2010. Why, people will wonder, does there appear to be two different pay trends in the private sector.

The annual adjustment for civil servants has always been controversial. In good times, people have no qualms about them sharing the fruits of strong economic growth. In bad times, they are expected to tighten their belts along with the rest of the community. But disputes do arise when there is a gap between people's expectations and the actual adjustment. Sometimes, the pay trend survey has been criticised as skewed and lagging behind reality. The difficulty experienced in cutting civil service pay in hard economic times - it can only be done through the passing of a law each time - has further reinforced the impression that public service pay and benefits are shielded from the harsh realities of the private sector.

Undoubtedly, the survey's figures are too generous from the perspective of some employers, especially when business groups like the Federation of Employers are advocating member companies to award pay rises of just 2.5 to 3.5 per cent this year. With many companies still adapting to the statutory HK$28-per-hour minimum wage introduced this month, concerns that the government pay rise will drive up wages further are not unfounded.

The Executive Council is expected to make a final decision after the figures have been validated by a government committee. Although from time to time the survey's methodology has been queried, it remains the best mechanism available so far. It will be up to the government to prove that its survey has faithfully mirrored the situation in the private sector. Taxpayers do not mind paying more for a clean and efficient civil service, but they have to be fully convinced that any pay rises are justified.