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Sunday, 7 July, 2002, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
HK civil servants in pay protest
Civil servants march holding protest banners
The row could divide Hong Kong
Tens of thousands of civil servants have staged a street protest in Hong Kong against a government plans to cut their pay.

Organisers said at least 35,000 people from 113 unions braced driving rain for the city-centre march in one of the largest labour demonstrations of recent years - police put the figure at no more than 20,000.

A civil servant protester
Protesters say they will take a pay cut, but not a new law they see as removing rights
Civil servants are angry that the government is planning to push through a law on Wednesday that would allow it to cut public salaries unilaterally in the future, as well as slashing pay by up to 4.4% this year.

The protest shows the growing animosity between the 180,000-strong civil service and the administration.

But the government workers are also angering those in the private sector who feel they have been sheltered from a prolonged economic downturn.

The administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa decided in May to cut civil servants' pay by between 1.58% and 4.42% after public pressure to cut the budget deficit, which hit HK$63.3bn (about US$8.1bn) last fiscal year.


Our pay and benefits will never be secure again

Civil servant Raymond Chong
But civil servants say their main concern is the law accompanying the pay cuts which they fear could allow the government to cut other benefits without discussion.

Mr Tung, who began his second five-year term on Monday, sent a letter to all government workers insisting the pay-cut legislation was a "one-off" bill which would not be used as a "pretext for curtailing civil servants' pension benefits".

'No alternative'

He wrote: "I hope colleagues will understand that there is no other alternative to this legislative approach."

But the thousands of people who marched and chanted slogans along Hong Kong's main city roads to the main government offices were not impressed.

Crowds of protesters march through Hong Kong
The march was one of the largest labour protests in recent years
Raymond Chong, a civil servant for 20 years, echoed the thoughts of many on the march.

"I am fine with the pay cut, but the administration is just ramming it through by enacting a law," he argued.

"Our pay and benefits will never be secure again.

"If they do it now, they can do it again."

Protest denounced

But James Tien, the chairman of the business-friendly Liberal Party and a member of Mr Tung's inner policy-making Executive Council, denounced the protest.


Hong Kong civil servants have to make their choice - either they are with the community or they are against it

Senior politician James Tien
"I think the civil servant union leaders are irresponsible in calling for a demonstration," he said.

"They fail to heed public sentiment over the budget deficit and the overgenerous pay packages of their members."

Correspondents say Hong Kong civil servants - especially those in senior ranks - are handsomely paid and have not been hit by the two recessions in four years.

In contrast, many private-sector workers have taken salary cuts or been laid off, with unemployment now at a record 7.4%.

Mr Tien said the morale of workers should not rest solely on how much they were paid.

"Hong Kong civil servants have to make their choice - either they are with the community or they are against it."

See also:

01 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
30 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
28 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
31 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
26 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
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