Editorial : The Pay Trend Survey

【明報專訊】The results of the annual Pay Trend Survey (PTS) have been published. If the government acts in accordance with the results, civil servants at all levels will have a pay cut. Civil servants' associations, however, argue that salary freezes will be sufficient. The major reason they have cited is that the government did not give civil servants a pay rise last year according to the survey results. They maintain that their salaries should not be cut, but be maintained at the same levels this year (which, they argue, will merely "offset" the loss of last year's unmaterialised pay rise) in order to preserve the "relative stability" of the rates of remuneration of the civil service. The government has been in staggeringly huge deficits over the past two years, and its Operating Account is expected to run a deficit of tens of billions of dollars yearly in the next four years. When handling civil servants' salary payments, the authorities must take into account the need to cut expenditure.

The results of a PTS are "lagging indicators", since they describe the salary changes over the previous year. In normal years, these results are not problematic. However, in the event of a sudden economic crisis, they might not be able to reflect the trends of the labour market accurately. Hong Kong experienced the anti-amendment storm starting in the summer of 2019 and a pandemic last year. Amid economic hardships, layoffs and pay cuts have become a common occurrence. However, if the PTS conducted in May last year had been followed, civil servants at high, middle and low levels would theoretically have been entitled to pay rises of 1.15% to 1.98%. As civil servants who had not reached the maximum salary point could still move up the salary scale by one point every year, some civil servants could have enjoyed further pay rises theoretically. However, there was a chorus of views in society that civil servants should ride out the hard times with citizens, and the government agreed to a salary freeze ultimately. In response to pressure from the public, some civil servants' associations proposed a so-called "3+3" plan, under which civil servants would have a salary freeze for three consecutive years on three conditions including a two-year suspension of the PTS afterwards and pay rises after economic recovery as compensation. However, the plan was not accepted in the end.

One year has passed and the results of the new year's PTS have been released. Compared with private organisations, the net pay trend indicators are -2.04%, -0.54% and -0.68% respectively for high-, middle- and low-level civil servants after the deduction of the percentage points of the payroll cost of increments (from the gross pay trend indicators). Civil service groups have called on the government to maintain the salary freeze. Some have even dredged up the government's refusal to accept the "3+3" plan, questioning whether the government would listen to opinions. To be honest, the "3+3" plan contained a lot of selfish calculations. There are two obvious examples. First, civil servants' associations believed that the government had a responsibility to give them a pay rise in accordance with the survey results, and the salary freeze was an act of unfairness to them that must be redressed. Second, as the impact of the pandemic on the economy might be long-lasting, if PTSs were conducted again, the results might be negative. Suspending the survey would have meant that they would not have a pay cut that the employees of private organisations would have to face. In short, the conditions that were attached in the plan would, in essence, have made them the winners in all circumstances, as they would have pay rises but no pay cuts. The response of civil servants' associations yesterday (May 18) to the results of the pay survey was consistent with this mindset.

Of the 180,000 civil servants, those low down in the hierarchy are not very well paid, so a pay freeze rather than a pay cut for them can still be considered. However, for those receiving high salaries punctually, it is not unfair to reduce their salaries as appropriate in accordance with the results of the PTS. The government can spend the money that is saved on the payment of civil service salaries on relieving people's hardships. If the economic rebound in the second half of the year continues and the private sector recovers across the board, the public will find it fair to see that civil servants are given a pay rise next year.

明報社評2021.05.19:公僕薪酬可加亦可減 財赤嚴重政府應節流







redress : to correct sth that is unfair or wrong

consistent with sth : in agreement with sth; not contradicting sth

across the board : affecting everyone or everything in a situation or organisation

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