Hong Kong, China (CNN) -- Hong Kong lawmakers resumed debate Wednesday on a bill that may result in the region's first statutory minimum wage.
The Minimum Wage Bill is a controversial piece of legislation that lawmakers hope will protect the most vulnerable workers in Hong Kong, one of the few places in the world without any sort of minimum wage law.
The debate is set to take two to three days.
A recent government survey showed that around half a million workers in Hong Kong earn less than $4 an hour. These include low-skilled workers from the catering, retail, and cleaning industries.
According to Man Hon Poon, a policy researcher at the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Union, the lack of legal protection for workers has led to serious exploitation.
"Workers in restaurants have to work for 12 hours or even 14 hours a day to earn a living," he said. "They cannot even go to the cinema."
Legislator Tommy Cheung, however, claims that the government should not interfere with the free market economy, which he says has served Hong Kong well in the past. A minimum wage could deter investors and lead to increased unemployment, said Cheung, who represents the catering industry.
"There is one fear within the industry, that they would have to close down," he said. "When you see a closure, everyone loses out."
The government first proposed the current bill in 2008 following a failed attempt at a voluntary minimum wage. Labor unions, however, have been lobbying for a minimum wage since 1998, following the Asian financial crisis.
The rate of the minimum wage has also been under great debate. Trade unions have been demanding a minimum wage of $4 while employer groups have been asking for $3 per hour.
If the bill passes this week, the rate of the minimum wage will be set by the Minimum Wage Commission, a consortium of trade union members, employers and scholars, in the coming months.
Once the chief executive approves the rate, employers will have six months to implement the law.
The Hong Kong government estimates that the earliest the minimum wage law may take effect is May 2011.