Employees of the Catholic Church have scored a partial victory in their quest to end a three-year pay freeze, with the church's leadership promising a two per cent salary increase. Despite the call for a more substantial pay rise from unionists, senior clerics ruled out further concessions and said the church had been under financial pressure since the economic downturn started in 1997. After the Post first reported the church workers' action in June, senior clerics - including co-adjutor Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kuin - met representatives of the Hong Kong Catholic Institution Staff Association to negotiate the pay rise. The union, representing more than 300 church workers such as parish secretaries and caretakers in church buildings, had called for a wage increase to 'compensate for the pay freeze since 1998'. Priests are not employees of the church. Last week, the church leadership decided on the pay rise, starting this month. Traditionally, the church workers' pay scale has been linked to the civil service's, but all pay rises were frozen in August 1998, eight months before the Government's pay freeze. Church workers say they expected a bigger increase, after civil servants received pay rises of between 2.38 per cent and 4.99 per cent this year, back-dated to last April. The union's chairman, Anthony Lam Sui-ki, said: 'Although we welcome any sort of pay rise after these three years, originally we had had high hopes of a more substantial increase to compensate for our hardship. 'We deserve to be paid better since the economy is slightly better than it was in 1998 and the rise should reflect that.' But Father Lawrence Lee Len, chancellor of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, said the church could not afford a higher increase. 'I know the pay rise is not big and not up to the workers' expectations, but it nonetheless is a form of slight encouragement,' he said. Father Dominic Chan Chi-ming, vicar-general of the diocese, said all 400 priests in Hong Kong - who do not receive any salaries - had their monthly travel allowances of about $2,000 increased by 'a couple of dozen dollars'. Apart from travel allowances, priests receive about $3,000 a month from the diocese for living expenses. Accommodation and food are provided for priests by individual parishes. Some Catholic groups voiced concern about the small wage increases. Secretary-general of the Catholic Commission on Labour Affairs Lawrence An Chung-yuk said the two per cent pay rise was too little. 'According to the principle of justice, the pay rise is too low. It is especially bad for employees of the lower levels whose salaries are already low,' he said. Jackie Hung Ling-yu, of the church's Justice and Peace Commission, said the church should address the needs of its grassroots workers. Church unionists are to meet in the next fortnight to decide whether to accept the increase or consider any future action.