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A Labor Milestone in Hong Kong

June 7, 2011

While Labor Day in the U.S. falls on the first Monday in September, Hong Kong and China observe the holiday on May 1st – also known as International Workers’ Day. This year Labor Day was especially significant as it marked the day when Hong Kong’s first minimum wage law came into effect.

Hong Kong bosses have long resisted the implementation of a minimum wage. They argued that it was better to let the market dictate appropriate wage levels based on supply and demand. Up to now, only one group of workers had a mandatory monthly minimum salary – overseas domestic helpers working in Hong Kong homes.

After years of legislative wrangling, the minimum wage was finally set at HK $28 per hour (US $3.60). While this is quite low in a city where the cost of living is so high, the intent was to give a better wage to 300,000 low-paid workers, such as those in the catering and retail industry. Some were paid as low as HK$20 (US$2.50) an hour. Hong Kong has one of the largest gaps between the rich and the poor in the world so the hope was to address the wealth gap and rising economic and social unrest.

However, both bosses and workers were surprised to find out how complicated it all became. Many other items had to be calculated besides the actual number of working hours multiplied by $28. What about the lunch hour? Is it considered working time or off time? What about the mandatory ‘rest day’ once per week? Is that part of the calculation of working days? The general feeling in the run-up to May 1st was confusion, panic and anger. Unions had warned that rules about paid lunch hour and rest days should be clearly spelled out before the minimum wage was implemented. The government declined to do so, leaving it for companies to decide themselves. This of course was a recipe for disaster.

Seeing the potential for workers to be losers again, Hong Kong Christian Council launched the ‘28+Wage Covenant Movement’. The campaign asked churches and Christians to be generous in implementing the minimum wage law by: (1) Paying higher than the statutory HK$28 per hour; (2) Counting meal time as paid working time; and (3) Including at least one paid day off in a week. As it says in I Timothy 5:18, the laborer is worthy of his or her reward. Thus, it is not only a matter of whether it is enough for earning a living, but also an affirmation of human dignity and support for family livelihood. Christians in particular should be willing to go ‘an extra mile’ for others and not be satisfied doing only the bare minimum.

Since the law came into effect, there have been both positive and negative results. Some workers have gotten a pay rise since their companies are now paying the minimum wage. Other companies publicly stated they would continue to have paid lunch hours and rest days, even if it increased their expenses (and allowed them to raise prices!) Others, however, have not been so fortunate. Some workers lost their paid lunch hour while others had their hours cut. Some companies even laid off whole sections of workers, saying they could no longer afford them under the new law. This was considered inevitable as employers needed to keep costs under control.

Professor Kung Lap-Yan of Chinese University of Hong Kong challenged the notion that jobs have to be ‘sacrificed’ when the law came into effect. “Why in such a wealthy place like Hong Kong do we insist that the poor and grassroots always have to be sacrificed? In God’s economy, there is plenty if we are willing to share. I refuse to believe that anyone has to be sacrificed to give workers a just wage.”

Given that the wealth of the city’s top 40 billionaires jumped 21% in 2010, it is fair to say that Prof. Kung is right. The small amount of wages of most of these workers pales in comparison to the huge profits made by businesses. It’s time for Hong Kong to take care of its workers and citizens, especially those who struggle to survive in the ‘world’s freest economy’. Labor Day is more than just another holiday for leisure. It is a day to stand up for all workers so they need not sacrifice their health or means of livelihood on the altar of human greed.

May the labors of our lives benefit your creation so that we might be co-creators of your world filled with peace and enough for all. Amen. (Paul Rauschenbush)

In the peace of Christ,

 

Judy Chan
Hong Kong

Judy Chan is a missionary serving with the Hong Kong Christian Council.  She is responsible for communications for the Council.  She is also in charge of ecumenical radio broadcasting ministry, English publications and ecumenical partnerships in Hong Kong and overseas.

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