With regard to the issue of some Hong Kong employees having to work long hours, I believe the society as a whole will agree that it needs to be alleviated, but this does not mean that legislation on standard working hours (SWH) is the only course of action.
SWH has Become the Focus of Attention
year to put forward specific recommendations on the direction of Hong Kong's working hours policy. Nonetheless, with the SWHC recently disclosing more “preliminary consensus” or “consensus in principle” after each meeting, public discussions on SWH have been increasingly fierce.
According to the reports, the SWHC has agreed in principle to recommend a legislative approach to mandatorily require employment contracts in general to specify clearly such terms as the number of working hours and overtime work arrangements (i.e. the “big frame”), and is exploring the need to further protect grassroots employees with lower income (i.e. the “small frame”). However, before the SWHC’s report is completed, many people inside and outside of the Legislative Council, especially those from the labour sector, have already repeatedly urged the Government to enact legislation on SWH. In fact, with regard to the issue of some Hong Kong employees having to work long hours, I believe the society as a whole will agree that it needs to be alleviated, but this does not mean that legislation on SWH is the only course of action.
Think Twice on Legislation as the Issue Is Complex
In fact, SWH is a very complex issue and has far-reaching implications. Thus, the decision on legislation shall not be taken lightly. Most countries in the world introduced SWH during industrial economic boom, while Hong Kong has already developed into a service-oriented economy, with service sector output value accounted for more than 90% of GDP and the number of people employed in the sector accounted for nearly 90% of total employment. In the service sector, working hours could vary severely among different trades and occupations, some of which even have distinctive business models. Certain professional services, due to their special nature, may require employees to complete their tasks within a specific time. In addition, with the development of communication technology, many employees will work at different locations outside office hours. It is therefore extremely difficult to stipulate a set of “standard” working hours across different trades and occupations.
Moreover, after four years’ implementation of the statutory minimum wage policy, the local labour market has become greatly distorted. Currently, the income levels of many grassroots jobs are equal to or have even surpassed those of jobs which have higher technical and academic requirements. For example, a dishwashing worker could earn more than an office clerk. Some companies have resorted to spreading out working hours and breaking down job processes to cope with rising costs. Of greater concern is that, while the minimum wage policy mainly affects grassroots employees, the SWH policy, as it will affect the more than three million employees across all trades and occupations, will lead to a shocking impact on Hong Kong’s economy, particularly its long-standing advantages of high flexibility and adaptability.
It is foreseeable that if a statutory SWH regime was implemented, businesses would have to employ more temporary or part-time workers since they would not be able to afford the excessive overtime costs. Eventually, workers who were old, less educated and inexperienced would earn less or even be laid off. As for the increase in labour costs, some would inevitably be passed on to consumers. Don’t forget that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The Right Remedy Should not Undermine Our Free Economy
In fact, according to the Government’s Report of the Policy Study on Standard Working Hours, among the more than 300,000 Hong Kong employees who had worked overtime without compensation in 2011, nearly 80% were managers, executives and professionals who had high technical qualifications and earned high salaries. There were many reasons for their overtime work, for example, some occupations required them to work outside normal office hours according to their contracts, while others required them to complete their tasks within specified time. Moreover, work capacity, willingness and efficiency varied among employees, and their fixed salaries and benefits often already included the relevant compensation. As for the remaining 20%, they were low-skilled and low-income employees whose actual number was less than 80,000. The authorities can solve the problem of unpaid overtime for this group by improving the Employment Ordinance and pushing for their employment contracts to be amended. Not only will this further safeguard the rights of employees, but also will retain the flexibility with both parties negotiating the working conditions, which indeed is the remedy best suited for Hong Kong’s free economy.
Thus, for the sake of alleviating the long working hours of some grassroots workers, hereby enacting legislation on SWH uniformly is simply “prescribing a strong dose of wrong medicine”, which not only will be difficult to implement in Hong Kong as a service-oriented economy, but will also undermine the degree of freedom of Hong Kong’s economy. It will change the workforce structure and seriously impact business operations and deployment of human resources. Small and Medium Enterprises (“SMEs”), as the mainstay of Hong Kong’s economy, will bear the brunt. Furthermore, the current global economic situation is extremely uncertain. The threat of the Greek debt crisis is lingering on and China’s economy is also decelerating. With the continuing slowdown in the growth of visitor arrivals to Hong Kong, tourism and related industries in Hong Kong have been suffering a heavy blow, and the retail sector is worrying that that will trigger a wave of business closures. The authorities concerned should keep a clear mind and avoid rashly making the wrong decisions to further hit the SMEs, which employ about half the workforce. Imprudent decisions would affect social stability and cause irreparable far-reaching implications on the long-term development of Hong Kong’s labour market, business environment and overall economy.
Safeguard Hong Kong’s Competitiveness
As widely known, a free economy has always been the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s success and should be well cherished. Otherwise, in the end, every member of the society will suffer. Contrariwise, all parties should be mutually understanding, accommodate one another and pull together for a common cause. The SWHC should base on data and the actual operating conditions of Hong Kong’s industries to formulate practical, feasible and optimised working hours’ policy options, and take into account Hong Kong’s competitive advantages. At the same time, the Government should actively strengthen training and lifelong learning in society to improve work efficiency and shorten working hours. It should also take the lead to promote family-friendly working conditions, such as introducing flexible working hours, promoting a balanced work-life culture and refining the Admission Scheme for Talents, and fundamentally solve the problem with a multi-pronged approach.
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