Hong Kong civil servants still in line for pay rise of up to 2 per cent, but recommended increase is lowest in 10 years

Ng Kang-chung

Hong Kong’s public sector employees could still be in line for a pay rise of up to nearly 2 per cent for the coming year if the results of an annual survey are adopted – but even if they do, the increases will be the lowest in a decade.

The recommended pay increases of between 1.15 per cent and 1.98 per cent, submitted on Tuesday to the official Pay Trend Survey Committee, came as the city’s economy reels from the double blow of the coronavirus pandemic after months of political unrest that had pushed it into recession.

The city’s latest jobless rate was 5.2 per cent, while the economy shrank 8.9 per cent in the first quarter.

But an Executive Council member and a union have called for salaries to be frozen, saying civil servants should share the pain with other residents.

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Based on the survey, the highest earners in the civil service should receive a 1.68 per cent pay increase, while those in the middle ranks should have a 1.98 per cent rise and the lowest earners should get 1.15 per cent – the lowest for frontline and middle-ranking staff since 2010, when rises were 0.56 per cent. Senior officers received a 1.6 per cent rise that year.

The recommendations already discounted annual civil-service pay increments for seniority.

The proposed rises for the 2020-21 financial year were derived from a survey of pay trends in 107 private companies, covering more than 146,000 employees, over the 12-month period from April 2, 2019 to April 1, 2020.

Li Kwai-yin (centre) chairs the Hong Kong Chinese Civil Servants’ Association, which had previously told the government it would accept a pay freeze for civil servants next year. Photo: May Tse

The firms surveyed included 80 larger companies employing 100 or more people, while the others were smaller companies with 50 to 99 workers.

Li Kwai-yin, a staff-side representative on the pay committee, said it appreciated that Hong Kong was in a very difficult time and would not rule out calling for a pay freeze for the coming year.

“The final pay-adjustment levels should be in accordance with two major principles – one is not to upset the stability of the civil service, and the other is to allow civil servants to share the ‘ups and downs’ of the economy.”

The Hong Kong Chinese Civil Servants’ Association, which Li chairs, had previously told the government it would accept a pay freeze for civil servants for the year ahead.

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Li’s fellow staff-side representative on the committee, Lee Fong-chung, said the pay-rise level met expectations and he hoped the government could approve it.

New People’s Party lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, ho is also an adviser to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in the Executive Council, said she personally supported a pay freeze.

“Civil servants should go through thick and thin with the citizens, with many of them already losing their jobs,” said Ip, adding that senior staffers had already enjoyed a decent pay rise over the past few years.

Recruitment consultant Alexa Chow Yee-ping, managing director of AMAC Human Resources Consultants, said: “The pay-rise levels were in line with the private market trend before January. But since then, the economy has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and many private companies are actually cutting the pay of staff.

Lawmaker Regina Ip says she personally supports a pay freeze for civil servants. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“Strictly following the established practice of adopting the results of the pay-trend survey is not wrong, but if the government can consider a pay freeze, it could send a message that the civil servants are willing to ride out the difficult times with the general public. And it is important to cool the public discontent amid the economic recession.”

Hong Kong has about 177,000 civil servants. In 2018-19, total staff-related expenditure on the civil service amounted to HK$124.4 billion (US$16 billion), according to the Civil Service Bureau.

A spokesman for the bureau said the government would consider a basket of factors in determining the annual civil-service pay adjustment.

“These factors include … the state of Hong Kong’s economy, the government’s fiscal position, changes in the cost of living, the pay claims of the staff side and civil service morale,” he said. “The effect of the coronavirus epidemic in recent months will also be reflected in the relevant factors.”

The Pay Trend Survey Committee, which includes representatives from businesses, professional sectors, the government and the civil service, is expected to meet again next week to validate the findings.

The Executive Council will decide on the final pay rise before the government seeks funding from the Legislative Council.

Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam

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