Fears have been raised that the long-awaited review of civil service pay levels will be delayed again.
Officials involved in the review, due for completion this year, say they will start collecting salary data from companies only in about the third quarter of this year, instead of the first quarter as planned.
The change comes amid expectations of a ruling in June from the Court of Final Appeal on whether the civil service pay cuts are lawful.
Staff unionists in the pay review working group were surprised to learn of the change in timing.
The Civil Service Bureau conceded that officials had 'juggled' the process, when asked about the apparent delay. Government and staff representatives began negotiations in April, 2003, on how to compare private-sector pay with the salaries of civil servants in hundreds of grades across 11 pay scales.
But consultation on the methodology only came late last year, with many unions still unable to compromise on the details.
Under the original plan, field work was to have begun in the first quarter of this year. The government is due to complete data analysis in the latter half of the year, followed by a bill to improve the pay-adjustment mechanism in the fourth quarter.
In a recent submission to Legco, the Association of Expatriate Civil Servants described the target of starting the data collection in the first quarter as 'totally unrealistic'.
The bureau, responding in a letter, admitted the process would begin in about the third quarter.
A bureau spokeswoman said the change was in response to staff unions' calls for a more detailed process to select the civil service jobs to be used in the comparison. The so-called job inspection procedure is expected to last up to four months.
'We have juggled the process but the overall timetable remains unchanged,' she said.
Federation of Civil Service Unions president Leung Chau-ting said he had been kept in the dark on the changes. He welcomed the extra time for the process, but predicted a delayed outcome. 'I reckon the whole exercise can only be completed in 2006,' he said.
He believed the government had put back the survey until the Court of Final Appeal's verdict.
As the government had said it would only freeze civil service salaries until private-sector pay had caught up, the delay would not have any real impact, he added.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, a member of the government steering committee on the review, said he also was unaware of the change.
Professor Cheung, of City University, agreed that the original timetable had been 'too rosy'.
'The government has underestimated the difficulties in negotiating with the staff side,' he said.