Ever since the annual civil service salary adjustment mechanism was boycotted by some unionists amid a pay row last year, there were concerns that this year's review would be more controversial. Thankfully, the dispute appears to have been headed off by better-than-expected adjustment figures. Based on a private sector pay trend, civil servants in the lower, middle and upper pay bands are in line for increases of 3.8 per cent, 4.71 per cent and 5.96 per cent respectively. If the standing practice is again followed, the lower band's figure will be raised to the middle band. Comparing last year's 2.55 per cent for the upper and 3.92 per cent for the two lower tiers, the unionists should find the coming adjustment more acceptable. The figures have indeed taken the staff side by surprise. While some representatives said they were disappointed and insisted that the rises should match inflation, they were less critical than last year. Some who have boycotted the mechanism would neither reject nor comment on the figures, saying they would not return to the mechanism. The response is to be expected. Having pulled out of the survey committee, it would be embarrassing for them to endorse figures from a survey they have criticised. But the public is already given the impression that the unions only accept favourable findings. Government pay is a sensitive issue. Be it an increase or a reduction, it can provoke strong reaction, both inside and outside the public sector. With handsome salaries and fringe benefits, our civil servants are already the envy of the world. The above-inflation increases for the 170,000-strong establishment are likely to dismay many in the private sector, where pay rises are not awarded as a matter of course every year. The actual rises will be determined by the Executive Council next month. While it will take into account factors such as the government's fiscal position, economic situation, cost of living and staff morale, it usually adheres to the pay survey findings. This is to minimise disputes and to ensure that public sector wages remain competitive. Although the representativeness of the survey has been questioned, it has served Hong Kong well in recent decades. If the unionists believe there are ways to improve the system, they can work them out with the government. Until then, the current mechanism remains the best option available. As long as it is an accurate reflection of economic reality, the mechanism should be respected and followed.