The head of security at the city's airport has blamed the introduction of the minimum wage last year for a staffing crisis that pushed frontline staff turnover at the 3,400-strong company to a record 30 per cent.
Hundreds of security guards at government-owned Aviation Security Company (Avseco) quit last year, opting for similar jobs closer to home with the airport's remote location a drawback for those on HK$10,000 a month.
"Turnover was 30 per cent last year because of the minimum wage," said Sidney Chau Foo-cheong, Avseco's executive director. "It was a difficult year; a lot of people were leaving, a lot to Legco or the police for better pay."
However, Chau - a former director of security with the police force - said a 6 per cent pay rise this year, on top of a 5 per cent increase last year, had reduced staff turnover to 20 per cent. The pay for a frontline security guard is now just below HK$12,000 a month.
But Li Hoi, general secretary of the security guards' union, said this was not enough given the specialist nature of aviation security. "They are different from ordinary security guards," he said.
"Even the guards at the Landmark and Times Square are being paid between HK$15,000 and HK$20,000 per month."
Chau acknowledged pay was one way to attract and keep staff; instilling a culture of accountability - including a whistle-blower programme - were other key factors.
"Turnover is a concern so if you give them a bit more money, it helps 50 per cent," he said.
"The other 50 per cent comes from caring for your staff and being strict but fair. We are not too harsh but it's also not a lenient 'country club' approach. Without discipline, they lean against the wall, eat when on the phone, have their hands in the pockets. It is about [manners] and conduct."
Chau said staff were subjected to surprise tests conducted internally and by independent reviewers. The number of verbal warnings and letters average about 200 a year, a stable figure given the increase in staff numbers since the company was established in 1998.
He praised the whistle-blower programme, which covers all employees from frontline security staff to mid-level managers to executives. He said there were about one or two complaints made every month. Whistle-blowers can remain anonymous, with complaints lodged via e-mail, phone or a letter. Some letters are addressed to Chau.
"Of course, we are not perfect, but we encourage people to tell us the truth and not to sweep the dirt under the carpet," Chau said.
An internal investigation unit will verify claims and make any necessary changes. While there is no direct financial gain, those who report misconduct can be fast-tracked for promotions.
Chau's team came under the spotlight two years ago this month when a mainland passenger disguised as an elderly man en route to Canada via Hong Kong tricked security staff and arrived in Canada looking like a young man in his 20s.
Chau said this incident had highlighted flaws in the airline's security, because Avseco had carried out the required checks.