MB Jan | Macau’s minimum wage: The never-ending story

By: Keith Morrison

In August 2008’s issue of Macau Business, I wrote this: ‘We hear endless and often uninformed discussion of the possible effects of a minimum wage on the economy. Small businesses complain that they cannot afford to pay their workers more so they will be hit, and other businesses claim that a minimum wage will reduce profits, interfere with the market and impede retard economic growth. . . . However, all of this misses the point entirely; asking about economics and employment is asking the wrong question. The argument is not only economic; it’s an ethical argument about what is right, good, socially just and fair. Receiving poverty-level wages is an affront to dignity in a civilized society. It is ethically unacceptable. . . . To argue purely from economics is to miss the point. . . . Maybe that is deliberate, as it lets those Macau businesses that wilfully exploit workers turn a blind eye to Macau’s poor. . . . I challenge those business leaders and legislators who oppose the minimum wage in Macau to live on a few thousand patacas for a month. Change places with a poor citizen of Macau and see how you like it; see if you can last even a month.’ 

Here we are, nearly a decade later, and little has changed, save for a minimum wage for cleaners and security staff. A universal minimum wage bill passed its first reading in 2014, but a commentator in 2017 wrote that ‘since then [it] has been held up by government stalling’. In January 2017 the Secretary for Economy and Finance was reported as saying that ‘the government is making efforts to implement this [law] within the next three years, but we must respect our mechanism’, i.e. expect more delay. 

Jump forward to September 2017, where it was reported that the Labour Affairs Bureau ‘confirmed that the minimum wage would only be discussed during the first quarter of 2019’, i.e. more delay. 

Then in mid-November 2017 it was reported that ‘the government has decided to extend the implementation of a minimum wage to all sectors in Macau. However, the consultation draft excludes domestic helpers and workers with disabilities’; shocking exclusions. In November 2017 the Labour Affairs Bureau launched the consultation on a statutory minimum wage with those two groups excluded. Employers opposed a minimum wage. The Director of the Labour Affairs Bureau indicated that, as one source put it, ‘the government does not hold a fixed stance towards which sectors should be excluded from the minimum wage scheme, and mentioned the possibility of some other sectors also being excluded from the implementation’. So, it seems that, actually, the minimum wage won’t extend to ‘all sectors’ after all.  

The Chief Executive’s Policy Address in November 2017 referred to the Labour Relations Law in which minimum wage matters would be included in proposals for legislation in 2018 and 2019. Apart from that, a deafening silence on a minimum wage; a triumph of nothing.  

Many years ago the philosopher John Rawls wrote that, as part of a social contract, we should hold an impartial view when considering a fair and just society. A ‘veil of ignorance’ should obtain, he averred, i.e. in reaching decisions about fairness and a just society, we should proceed selflessly, as if we don’t know how this could affect us personally; we might benefit or lose by the decisions. He wrote that it is as if ‘no one knows his [sic] place in society, his class position or social status. . . . [I]t should be impossible to tailor principles to the circumstances of one’s own case’. If only Rawls’s view were to be applied to discussions of, and action on, a minimum wage in protectionist Macau. As my 2008 article stated: ‘To argue purely from economics is to miss the point. . . . I challenge those business leaders and legislators who oppose the minimum wage in Macau to live on a few thousand patacas for a month’. At present they are found wanting: neglectful, insufficiently caring, inactive, even unethical. It’s shameful. 

Here we are at the start of a new year, with little real progress made on a minimum wage.  Pity the poor, the voiceless and those on low wages. In the third quarter of 2017, 37,600 employees, i.e. nearly 10 per cent of Macau’s workers, earned a median monthly income of below 6,000 patacas. Who speaks for them? Where do they have a voice? Who listens? What is a ‘minimum’ living wage? Where is the action in rich Macau?