'When Squire All-worthy opened his door to find a baby
lying on his doorstep, he could not avoid a decision.
To have 'taken no action' or to have left it there,
would have been tantamount to deciding to let it die
of starvation and exposure'.
The Legislative Council has been 'left holding the baby'
on the issue of the 'Public Officers Pay'. By taking
the unusual step of introducing legislation, the Government
has unwittingly thrust the decision to cut civil servants
pay to LegCo amidst the fierce and unanimous opposition
from the entire army of unions in Hong Kong. They oppose
fiercely, primarily not because of the small amount
of money involved, but the injustice that this unnatural
law, if passed, would have in suppressing their chances
to obtain fair judgement by means of mediation or litigation.
To put it in another way, lawmakers are now being asked
to move the 'goal post' in the wage bargaining process
in favour of the Government while the game is still
ongoing. The 'Public Officers Pay Amendment Bill' has
left lawmakers to choose between letting the civil servants
get away with a salary level which is unfairly high
or to serve as accomplice to the Administration in handing
down its deal unilaterally to the civil servants in
a somewhat unfair manner. How should we
decide, to decide against fair game or to decide against
pay cut? It is indeed a Hobson's choice.
I believe that as a lawmaker, I must ask why should
we be left in such a 'no-win' situation.
Firstly, why is that the Government has left itself
in such an absurd position of only allowing pay rises
but not pay cuts? Why is this problem not fixed
years ago or at least sometime 'before' entering into
this round of wage bargaining for the year 2002-3?
Secondly, even if we accept that the existing legal
rules are stacked against the Administration.
Why should we insist to legislate and add new rules
before the game is played out and the whistle blown
by the referee?
Thirdly, if the Legislative Council is the equivalent
to a 'games committee' making rules for wage bargaining
then the referee should clearly be left to another institution
e.g. the courts. Then why is that the government
now asks the Legislative Council who is the rules-maker
to suddenly double up as judges for this year's pay
In my view, any bargaining of wages should be strictly
a matter between the employer and the employees.
In the event of legal dispute, they should seek mediation
or a court judgement. The Legislative Council
is neither an arbitrator nor a court. We should
seriously question the rationale of placing LegCo in
this role and then ask us to determine against the civil
servants at the same time.
If there are obvious defects in the present legal and
contractual arrangements between the administration
and its employees, then such should be reviewed and
fixed after due process of consultation and then, and
only after then, be enshrined in law. That is
the proper use of the political process and where the
Legislative Council plays it's proper role. To
meddle with this system could result in serious consequences.
The community could then rightly ask if we could do
this to the Civil Servants today, could we then not
do it to others tomorrow? Even if a reduction
in Civil Servants pay is a desirable objective, which
I fully agree, should a lawmaker use any means to serve
this end or should we not also consider whether or not
the means are fair?
I urge the Government and lawmakers to keep an open
mind and to explore any other preferred options to try
to resolve this apparent stalemate between the Administration,
the Unions and LegCo.
The first possible method is to allow a parallel procedure
of arbitration and legislation. If the unions would
abide to the results of arbitration and that the Chief
Executive would exceptionally order it, then the passage
of legislation should follow to enshrine its conclusions.
I personally believe that the year of 2002-3 is a 'one-off'
year where arbitration is needed. In any case, the legal
rights for the Government to implement pay cuts should
be put in place before the next round of pay review
The second possible method is to allow time for parallel
legislation. The Administration or lawmakers might
introduce another piece of legislation immediately to
enshrine the existing principles and mechanism of the
wage bargaining process in order to deal with the long-term
issues and to also plug any loopholes in the present
system. Then and only after then, shall the present
'Public Officers Pay Adjustment Bill' together with
any consequential amendments be given legal effect to
Any one of these two methods would ensure fair means
to achieve fair pay. In a society that endears
civil liberty and fair play, the government should not
be seen to enjoy special privileges and some added convenience
of being able to change existing legislation at will
to suit its executive decisions.
There is, however, a price to pay for fairness. Because
of the technical issues involved, it takes time to mediate
or to enact new laws of such complexity. If it means
taking a year to perfect the system, that the price
tag to the government coffer will be about $1.5 Billion.
Nonetheless, I believe that if the Administration and
the unions set their minds on settling the matter quickly.
It will only take a few months from now, or, not much
longer than 1st October 2002, the original day set for
the pay cuts, to resolve the present disputes through
arbitration. The cost is then minimal. If
it means parallel legislation, then the clock will be
running and the dollars draining whilst the Administration
and the unions negotiate a fair deal with the whole
world watching. Unreasonable delays on either
side will mean the loss of public support immediately.
I do not believe then that they will stall their feet.
Hong Kong is going through hard and changing times.
I can envisage even more difficult problems to come
on the horizon. For example, the new political
accountability system starting from next week and the
even tougher negotiation to come in the review of the
structure, methodology of review, level and the terms
and condition of public officers pay. These difficult
changes can best be managed with the co-operation and
trust of the Civil Servants rather than trying to break
their spirits. To be paid perhaps a bit too excessively
is not a public crime and our loyal civil servants deserve
a fair hearing from the public and the Legislative Council.
Why should they be now 'punished' just because the Government
has been far too generous with them in the past?
To me, this whole issue is as much a matter of moral
judgement as a matter of public finance. However, it
should never have been a political decision if the Administration
has not left the legal position unresolved for so long
and then unceremoniously thrust the 'unwanted baby'
at the doorstep of the Legislative Council. We
are now left with a tough call to decide whether or
not to back the Government in doing the 'right thing'
but by taking a 'dubious route' or to say no to the
Government but then let the community suffer the rather
undesirable financial consequences that follows.
Credit: Eric Li is the
LegCo Accountancy Functional Constituency Representative.
For more information, refer to his website at http://www.ericli.org.