Insight: It’s every man for himself

Paulo Barbosa

The law establishing a minimum wage for security guards and cleaners working for property management companies was approved in general terms by the AL and will now be subject to a detailed analysis and new vote. “This is a positive step,” Secretary for Economy and Finance Francis Tam remarked during the parliamentary debate conclusion, when he argued for no need for further consultation (the usual argument used by the local lawmakers when they want to stall a legislative process) and stated that the law is the first step toward a universal minimum wage.
Under the new legislation, a minimum wage of MOP30 per hour or a minimum monthly salary of MOP6,240 is set. The amount is subject to annual review and can be adjusted according to economic conditions.
As expected, lawmakers opposed to a minimum wage used many demagogical arguments during the debate at the AL. Some of them raised inflationist fears and asked how the SMEs would cope if they were to pay an increased wage. Others even claimed that the legislation could cause “social conflict,” since not all workers benefit. The champion of bad taste was Fong Chi Keong, who asked the government not to rely on studies made by universities. He used an old Chinese proverb to illustrate why: “Most of the scholars are liars,” he said. He went on to say that there are “different levels of people” in society and that some of them are satisfied by eating a loaf a day.
Fong Chi Keong is a lawmaker appointed by the Chief Executive. In the previous legislature he was already famous for his coarse remarks. In many parliaments around the world, such statements would be taken for what they are: classism, or discrimination on the basis of a social class, perhaps even on the basis of a different race.
Mr Fong’s allusion to scholars sounds like an invitation for ignorance and arbitrary decision-making. However, the CE appointed him, hence I suppose that Chui Sai On thought that the lawmaker could contribute to the political debate…
The resistance to introduction of a minimum wage shows how local society is extremely conservative and lacks community values. Many here think it’s every man for himself.
The World Bank has just revealed that Macau has overtaken Switzerland to become the world’s fourth richest territory per person. The region recorded a per capita gross domestic product of USD 91,376 in 2013, behind Luxembourg, Norway and Qatar. I’m well aware that this is an average and most of the money stays in a few gaming hands, but when a society can afford to use prestige cars as utilitarian vehicles it also should be able to pay a reasonable minimum wage.
In Switzerland, where unemployment is almost nonexistent (like in Macau), the minimum wage is not written into law, but collective bargaining agreements between workers and employers cover almost the entire population, implying that the minimum salary of skilled workers ranges from 2,800 to 5,300 Swiss francs (MOP25,000 to 47,400), while that of unskilled workers is between 2,200 to 4,200 Swiss francs (MOP16,670 to 37,550.) In a recent referendum, they discussed the establishment of a unique minimum wage equivalent to MOP 36,000. The proposal was rejected. It would have been the highest minimum wage in the world.
I’m not saying that we could have a salary like this in Macau (you wish!) but we must give some thought to whether it is sustainable – human, even – to pay as little as MOP2,500 to domestic helpers who take care of our families and perform an essential job, allowing many locals to keep the balance between home and work. The government can’t turn a blind eye to the issue by using the simplistic reasoning that those low paid workers are legally speaking “non-residents.”
If the workers’ condition isn’t improved we are not so far from the black workers’ ordeal under the apartheid regime, as described in a book by Melanie Verwoerd, an Afrikaner who turned against the system: “They [black township workers] had no formal hours and had to be on call 24 hours a day. Their average salary was less than R200 per month, and if anything broke, it was deducted from their pay. They rarely had leave. (…) They had to send their baby away to their family in the rural areas – they rarely saw them afterwards – while they were raising the white family’s children. I was appalled. It was the early 1990s, not the 1700s!”
Rings a bell?

Categories Opinion