Keenly awaited results of a survey by the Census and Statistics Department show that nearly 17 per cent of workers, or 469,400 people, earn less than HK$33 an hour, and some 130,200 earn less than HK$24 an hour. The significance of those two benchmarks is that the higher hourly rate is the one unions are targeting under the city's first statutory minimum wage, and the lower is the one that many business groups say they can afford. The survey results will be one of many factors to be considered by the Provisional Minimum Wage Commission in setting the rate, which could be announced as early as July. Although conducted in the first half of last year amid tougher economic conditions and higher unemployment, it provides a context for the competing claims of employers and workers. In its submission to the commission, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce says an hourly rate equivalent to HK$5,000 a month would lead to the loss of at least 100,000 jobs as employers sack the low-paid rather than pay up. Lay-offs on that scale among cleaners and security guards - who are among the lowest paid - conjure up visions of downgraded building security, overflowing garbage cans, dirty common areas and toilets overdue for sanitation - an uninviting image for a densely developed and populated high-rise city. But we will believe it when we see it. The chamber's submission reflects responses from member companies to a hypothetical question. As such it is more likely to reflect a knee-jerk reaction than a considered response to an actual adjustment in the wage structure for the lowest paid - in effect a worst-case scenario. To put this in perspective, someone who toils for the city's median monthly 192 working hours for HK$24 an hour - the minimum rate favoured by business groups - already makes just over HK$4,600. It's hard to see how the extra HK$400 a month will put that many people out of work. To be fair, employer spokesmen everywhere raise the issues of business costs and job creation in minimum wage negotiations. That's their job, just as union and labour advocates everywhere pitch for higher salaries. And there is no question that the HK$33 rate favoured by the unions would affect some enterprises more than others - restaurants, for example. Their industry body says most frontline staff earn between HK$20 and HK$25 an hour. The commission will consider a range of factors including standards of living, labour market conditions - and social harmony. In the latter respect a minimum of HK$24 an hour would benefit relatively few people, and not by much. But a much higher minimum might weigh on the spirit of enterprise on which this city's prosperity was built. Striking a balance is a political challenge. Yet the basic reason for having a minimum wage shouldn't be lost in this calculus: to enable the lowest paid of our community to maintain a life of basic dignity and decency. Hong Kong is a city of extremes of wealth, and the gap between the richest and the poorest has been growing. A minimum wage based on fairness - balancing the need to allow the poorest worker the basics of a decent life with the ability of business to pay - is not only the ideal way forward; anything less would defeat the purpose of passing such a law. Nor should any number be set in stone: an important objective is to put it in place along with a review mechanism so it can be adjusted from time to time to fairly reflect the city's circumstances.