Amid the noise and shouting of slogans during the social workers' protest yesterday, it was difficult to distinguish their legitimate demands for higher wages from the more questionable arguments they have used to advance their case. Their core demand is essentially for a salary rise. This is difficult to argue against when civil servants and the more junior public doctors and nurses have all been given a rise this year as the economy improves and government coffers fill up. Understandably, subvented social workers are demanding their fair share when civil servants have received a pay increase. Staff from 164 subvented groups have had their wages cut or frozen since they began to be funded by annual lump sums, starting from 2000. Previously, they were funded practically as government branches with standardised jobs, pay scales and staffing levels. As a result, serious wage disparities exist today between NGO and government social workers, especially at entry level. Unfortunately, many protesters yesterday were convinced the government's lump-sum subvention system must be scrapped if they are to get fair wages. Shouting the slogan of 'same pay for performing the same job', protesters were in effect demanding a return to the civil service pay scale, because this is the only way they could get wages comparable to those of their Social Welfare Department colleagues. But this would be a giant step backwards. Most government social workers, in fact, do not perform the same jobs as their subvented counterparts, who specialise in different services. Financially, the government is ready to meet their demand, at least up to a point. Some HK$330 million, which is to be made recurrent in the subvention budget, has been earmarked so NGOs can pay their workers more. Also, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung promised yesterday to review the lump-sum system to make it work better. But he rightly insisted that scrapping it was not an option. When the lump sums were introduced in 2000, the intention was to enable NGOs to spend as they chose, including having their own staffing and pay structures, in order to shake them out of the civil service mindset and provide more innovative and efficient services. The funding system did not preclude paying workers more than their government counterparts. Part of the problem is that many NGO executives have become very conservative in budgeting under the lump sums, which have shrunk more than 9 per cent in seven years. This has caused them to withhold some of the funds, hire new staff with lower salaries and generate extra workloads for workers. While some NGOs have adjusted to the new realities, many clearly have not - hence the deep-seated discontent that runs through the ranks of the subvented social service sector. The time is long past for these subvented groups to return to being quasi-government departments. But clearly the transition has proved difficult, especially during the long deflation years of funding cuts and wage freezes. Now, the government should be ready to help by loosening its purse strings and helping NGOs to better manage their funds and staff.