If cutting the salary of Hong Kong's most vulnerable workers by 11 per cent seems harsh, think of how it must look to outsiders. Our wealth compared to other cities in the region marks us as superior in so many ways; now we are also being called greedy and heartless. But the issue of reducing the salary of foreign domestic helpers signing new contracts by $400 a month from April 1 is not simply a matter of public relations and Hong Kong's overseas image. It is also one of allowing debate and discussion in a manner befitting the democratic society we like to think we are building. Not for the first time has the government, its eye on a massive budget deficit, ignored its constituents. By deducting from the wages of domestic helpers and donating the amount to itself through a levy on employers in November, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's administration has trampled on too many toes. With so many people involved - more than 230,000 domestic helpers, a similar number of families and at least half a dozen foreign governments - debate should have been obligatory. Perhaps the reason is because domestic workers are too often perceived as an underclass - despite their being crucial to the economic well-being of Hong Kong. Without their help, many families would be reduced to a single income or their children would be left unattended. Their employment vulnerability is unparalleled. Neither their hours of work nor their living or working conditions are clearly stipulated by law. Domestic workers come from the region's most needy countries - Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand. They are here because of lack of employment opportunities and high poverty levels at home. In the case of the Philippines, the eventual annual loss of about $800 million in remittances will be a significant economic blow. With that hard currency being perceived as being stuffed into Hong Kong's coffers, it is little wonder Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is angry. Only her government has so far questioned the decision, but her consular officials have foreshadowed the likelihood of others joining. In court this week, the prince versus the pauper scenario will have the regional media glowering afresh. How Hong Kong deals with the challenge will be closely watched. If Hong Kong deals with the matter of maids' pay as one of mere money, rather than thinking of the wider ramifications, it will become one of reputations. These take a long time to build, but can be dashed in an instant. Attracting foreigners here is part of maintaining our international image. If we are so off-handed about the lowest paid, how will we be seen about those on higher salaries? Or how about potential investors and their feelings of economic security if rules can be so readily altered without discussion? Quick decisions on domestic helpers' salaries - as with soccer betting - illustrates how money matters most to the government. Legislation on issues immensely more important to the well-being of our society - child pornography and the labelling of genetically-modified food are still languishing in the consultation stages, years after they were first suggested. It seems the welfare of the women and their families from the poorest countries in Asia is also of less importance than the revenues that can be raised at their expense. Similarly, the countries they come from can be treated just as injudiciously. Because of its insensitivity, however, Hong Kong may also eventually lose its credibility.