SCMP Saturday, May 12, 2001

Blue-collar blues

Worries have been expressed about the widening gap between rich and poor since the height of the Asian financial crisis, but never has there been such a stark contrast as there is now.
In common with the civil service, many companies in Hong Kong continued to freeze wages last year, but a fortunate few were given an increase, and the Pay Trend Survey published yesterday shows an alarming gulf in pay scales between skilled and unskilled workers.
In the past, the differential wavered between one and just under two per cent. Last year employees at the top of the private industry pay scale were awarded around 6.15 per cent, those earning less than $15,000 a month had an increase of 2.95 per cent. Consequently, it seems the Government is considering civil service pay awards of between two and five per cent. After such a long wage freeze any increase will be welcomed, but the differential could cause discontent in the lower ranks.
It is, however, the wider implications of the pay trend that should worry the community as a whole. Here is irrefutable evidence that the economy is changing, and that those who cannot adapt are going to find life tough in the years ahead. The city's wealth was founded on sweat-shop labour in the days when every street boasted at least one cramped little factory. It can only be sustained by the talents of a highly educated and adaptable workforce that can keep abreast of the fast-paced developments in information technology and a sophisticated service industry.
That is the reason behind the pay differentials. Technocrats are in such short supply and so sought after that they can virtually dictate their own terms. Talent has to be paid for, and with the SAR's aspirations in this direction, employers must be prepared to pay the price to stay competitive. But there is an oversupply of unskilled and semi-skilled labour in a shrinking market and consequently a cutback in wages.
This is a global problem, but it is thrown into sharper focus in a small community, where social divisions are more visible and therefore likely to cause greater discontent. It is a potential powder-keg for the government unless it takes steps to rectify the situation. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has set a target of 60 per cent of the school population going on to higher education. That will not be easily achieved, and it will take vast resources to upgrade the education system from Primary One onwards. Education reforms are not the whole story. At the same time there must be more and better schools for every child in full-time education.
But not every citizen can be academically inclined, and the needs of blue-collar workers must not be neglected. They also keep the economic wheels turning, and they are entitled to a fair reward for their contribution. At present, many are vulnerable and exploited, and a society which permits that has no claim whatsoever to world-class status.