This month Legco votes again on a fixed minimum wage. Workers in 90 per cent of the world's countries are protected by similar legislation but many local businessmen still oppose such a law This summer the Labour Welfare Alliance surveyed 1,260 jobs and found almost 53 per cent of them pay less than HK$27.90 hourly rate for security guards. Thirty-five per cent paid less than the HK$25.40 an hour average for cleaners. Right at the bottom of the wages league, low-skilled catering workers made only HK$16 an hour. Given figures like these, a statutory minimum wage to protect workers in Hong Kong from exploitation seems long overdue. But every year local unions and lawmakers try to introduce a minimum wage law that would set the lowest salary an employer can legally pay employees, and every year they fail for the same reason: a fixed minimum wage is seen as a threat to Hong Kong's capitalism-driven prosperity. Perhaps the newly-elected Legco will vote differently later this month after reviewing the results of a voluntary minimum wage scheme among employers of cleaning workers and security guards. But publicly the experiment is already seen as a failure, with the campaign unable to recruit enough employers or give them any incentive to follow through with minimum salaries. However, the income gap in Hong Kong is at its widest ever and, according to Lingnan University economics professor Ho Lok-sang, this is wholly unsustainable. As the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer, this increasing disparity could create unrest among the poorest, low-skilled workers, Dr Ho said. The ensuing social problems, such as dysfunctional families and civil disobedience, might then compel the government to spend more on social programmes and law enforcement. Even though more than 90 per cent of countries around the world have a minimum wage law, according to the International Labour Organisation, critics say its introduction here would hurt the people it is intended to help. Last month Stanley Lau Chin-ho, deputy chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Industries, told the South China Morning Post a minimum wage may worsen what is already forecast to be a difficult time for employment. 'If they do legislate, this will cause big problems for many small- and medium-sized enterprises,' he said. 'This is not the right time. Legislation means less flexibility ... if we come to a downturn it will hurt a lot, particularly for the elderly and under-educated people, for whom jobs will disappear.' America enacted its minimum wage law in 1938, at the end of the Great Depression. Wages were set at 25 US cents an hour and a year later the government determined 30,000-50,000 people had lost their jobs as a result. Dr Ho thinks the success of a salary threshold depends on the level at which it is set. 'It depends where the minimum wage is fixed. Initially it shouldn't be too high or costs will outweigh benefits,' he said. As the deadline for the government's decision approaches, many legislators have begun lobbying for or against the legislation. During one rally by the catering industry, Confederation of Trade Unions organising secretary Juo So-in told the Post: 'Many workers in the food industry suffer and can hardly make ends meet ... the government must protect these workers from exploitation. The government is very myopic if it only sets a minimum wage for cleaners and security guards.'