Jake's View

Jobs cry an excuse to continue income disparity

HK needs to rise to the level of the great democracies if everyone is to have a better life

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 1:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 1:15am

Government sees 188,000 jobs with no one to fill them by 2022, and a big educational mismatch.

SCMP headline, May 20

I don't want to seem culturally elitist about these things but there is a reason that much of the world looks up to the great democracies of the West.

Superficially, of course, it is because they are rich. In fact, this is more a result than a cause. The real reason is that their people participate so widely in all their scientific and cultural achievements. This gives them both their wealth and their standing.

And the reason that their people participate so widely is that they have the time and energy to do it after the daily grind of just staying alive and hiding from the exactions of the more powerful.

The great democracies generally have better income equality. The rewards of it are immense.

We can also rise to this level in Hong Kong but let's not fool ourselves. We are not there yet. It would require significantly greater increases in take-home pay at the bottom of the income scale for a prolonged period.

All the studies, however, suggest that income disparity is still wide in this town and has grown.

Your own eyes can tell you so, too. Ask yourself, how many times have you seen a self-serve petrol station in Hong Kong? How many times have you seen a full-service one in the United States? Every day here presents evidence of people employed in jobs of marginal utility. They come cheap.

And now our government is readying itself to ensure that they stay cheap. That is what "shortfall of workers" means in reality. It means government giving in to the demands of employers that the borders be opened to allow in a flood of migrant labour so that kitchen help can be kept at minimum wage.

I admit that the alternative can be a wrenching experience. When dish washers are not available at less than HK$15,000 a month, the cost of eating out goes up and you may find yourself doing less of it.

If you own a car, you may even find yourself having to step out of it at the petrol station to fill your own tank. The pump jockey has found himself a job in car repair and full service can no longer compete with self-serve in the price of fuel.

That is how it went in Europe and the US and that is how they raised themselves to the state of development they have reached.

This opportunity has now been presented to us. As the first chart shows, there is a close inverse correlation between unemployment and wage growth in Hong Kong. Joblessness is near record lows. Low-end wages are catching up.

And as to that bit about "a big educational mismatch", I present the evidence of the second chart. University degree holders account for 27 per cent of the workforce, more than double the figure 15 years ago.

Mismatch indeed. And there certainly will be if these people are not allowed to carry this society's standards of work and pay upwards.