On Being Poor, Hong Kong's Minimum Wage Debate...

I'm glad I don't do what this woman does for a living.

In Hong Kong, a debate is gradually heating up as to what level the city's minimum wage level should rightly be set at. The looming political smack down will be between the unionists in the red corner, and in the blue corner, the catering industry bosses.

Even though restaurant workers make up the largest segment of low income earners in Hong Kong, other non-catering industry workers, such as cleaners and security guards, will also be affected by the Government's plans for a minimum wage.

The unionists are hunkering down for a mere HK33.00 (US$4.25) an hour, whilst the catering industry lobby and pro-business groups are trying to get the minimum wage set as low as humanly possible, at a laughably low HK$24.00 (US$3.09) per hour.

Even if the unionists get what they are asking for (highly unlikely), I really cannot imagine living off HK$5,280.00 (US$680.10) per month[*]. Can you?  I really can't. It's just not possible for me. And if the bosses get their way, well... that doesn't even bear thinking about.

It must be an absolute living hell to be poor in Hong Kong. In a city as expensive as this, one can only exist on that wage, not live. Quality of life does not even enter into the debate. Wherever you look in Hong Kong, luxury and lifestyle advertising is everywhere. TV ads exhort luxury property with glittering chandeliers, Caucasian girls in ball gowns and sports cars. Magazines and newspapers drip with ads for 'timepieces' and 'chronographs' that supposedly last several generations. Billboards feature gargantuan crouching women in high heels with glum expressions touting handbags. And because the rich co-exist in such close proximity to the poor here, being poor in this town must be even worse than being poor in a poor place where everyone around you is poor, if that makes any sense at all. Even the middle classes in Hong Kong are kept artificially poor by being suckered into over-spending on over-priced branded leather goods. That's assuming they can even afford to do so after decades of forking out half their monthly salary for a tiny concrete shoebox in the sky. Sometimes I think it's a conspiracy, and that's why I loathe branded goods so much. Yesterday I kicked myself yesterday for not bringing a camera to the beach where I spotted a young woman with an LV monogram tattooed on her ankle - such is the iron-fisted grip of luxury brand corporatism over the docile and impressionable folk of Hong Kong.

But back to the minimum wage. Hemlock the Big Lychee has an interesting take on the debate here. One commenter on his blog argues that the catering industry bosses should not be taking aim at the little people, but at the landlords who are gouging restaurant business owners with exorbitantly high rents:-

If wages increase it will be us poor sods, the customers, who end up paying. Many non-chain restaurants have very tight margins and will have to lay off staff + raise food prices, which won’t help anyone. The real villains of the piece, as always, are the parasitical landlords.

Makes sense to me.

[*] I arrived at my rough estimate monthly salary figure of HK$5,280.00 (US$680.10) by the following calculation which is based on the best case scenario proposed by the unionists for the low income earners they represent: HK$33.00 (US$4.25) per hour x 8 hours x 5 days x 4 weeks = HK$5,280.00 (US$680.10). This figure does not take into account any overtime earned, or holidays and days off taken.

But now take a look that the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions website. Incredibly, you will see that their proposed minimum monthly wage salary figure is HK$6,885.00 (US$886.83). This figure is arrived at by multiplying HK$33.00 (US$4.25) by the amount of hours a month that they figure the average low income worker in Hong Kong should be working: 209 hours. And 209 hours divided by four weeks works outs at 52 hours a week. Which in turn works out at around an 8 to 9 hour day, six days a week. In my calculations I had foolishly assumed two days off work a week, not one. No weekends off. Nope, I had forgotten, only civil servants are allowed to get Saturdays and Sundays off. What did I say earlier about quality of life not entering the debate? And with friends like the HKCFTU, who needs enemies?

ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA PHOTOGRAPHER

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