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CHINA - The Minimum Wage is About Human Dignity and Social Justice

August 3, 2010
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After Hong Kong’s legislature approves a Statutory Minimum Wage bill, trade unions and employer associations are engaged in a heated debate. Hong Kong’s Catholic diocese tells the various parties and public opinion that the heart of the matter is not economic but human and social.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – The minimum wage is more than about money, it is first and foremost about recognising workers’ dignity and reducing the gap between haves and have-nots, this according to the Diocese of Hong Kong, which has recently intervened in the debate that surrounds the Statutory Minimum Wage bill adopted by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) on 17 July.

The new law, which will come into effect next year, has been welcomed as a landmark reform in the history of the special administrative region. However, the new legislation is still a long way from stamping its mark on the region’s labour relations, because it has not yet picked a minimum hourly wage.

Trade unions want 33 Hong Kong dollars per hour (US$4.25) but employers’ groups argue that it too high and that at that level many firms would be forced to close.

Given the controversial nature of the issue, it is hard for most Hong Kong residents to make sense of it all since information tends to range from the outright bombastic to the partial or even false with the various parties to the debate pulling no stops on disinformation, scare tactics, pleas and threats.

The question revolves around the benchmark to be used to calculate what a minimum wage is. It is unclear whether the law intends to link it to some tangible guideline, like the consumer price index, or have it set, as the name suggests, to some minimum monetary standard, which can leave it open to something as vague as what industry can afford to pay.

For a number of experts, the issue is primarily about the effects of minimum wage legislation on the economy. However, for the Diocese of Hong Kong, through its Commission on Labour Affairs and the Justice and Peace Commission, the issue is much more than money, for it involves human and social relations.

In Catholic social teaching, every working person has a right to a living wage. Such remuneration is not a privilege, but a fundamental right. In short, the question is about justice.

Usually, wages tend to be thought in terms of contract, when in fact they are about social justice and must be seen in relation to workers’ needs and those of his/her family and children.

In his landmark encyclical Populorum progressio (The Progress of Peoples), Pope Paul VI said, “there are the flagrant inequalities not merely in the enjoyment of possessions, but even more in the exercise of power. In certain regions, a privileged minority enjoys the refinements of life, while the rest of the inhabitants, impoverished and disunited, are deprived of almost all possibility of acting on their own initiative and responsibility, and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of the human person.”