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Monday, September 22, 2014, 09:55


By Luo Weiteng

Hong Kong workers put in the longest average working hours each week in the Asia-Pacific region, and have been fighting for standard working hours. But there’s still no consensus amid stiff opposition from employers. Luo Weiteng reports.


The clock strikes 12 midnight. Vivian Li, drained and dog-tired, starts packing up and gets set to leave the office after toiling for 15 hours. Since joining a local financial public relations firm just one-and-a-half months ago, she has lost count of how many times she can only knock off almost towards the wee hours of the morning.

Not that she’s a workaholic. It seems she hasn’t much of a choice. The first paycheck in her life, of HK$12,000, is far from enough to buoy her up.

“I’m buried in work from 9 am to deep into the night, yet I don’t get any overtime pay except for a petty HK$40 taxi allowance daily. My whole life is like this — struggling to wake up, go to work, grab a bite, rush back to work, finish it, get home, collapse into bed and repeat the same cycle the next day,” sighed Li.

Hong Kong’s conventional nine-to five working hours have become something of an urban chore for many in Hong Kong, and Li’s case isn’t unique.

According to 2013 Report on Annual Earnings and Hours Survey published by Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department, the median weekly working hours in May and June that year for the city’s employees was 45. For male workers, the median weekly working hours was 48, against 44.3 hours for their female counterparts.

Above ILO limit

However, employees in six industries — retail, estate management and security, restaurants, land transport, elderly home care, as well as laundry and dry cleaning services — work an average of 54.6 hours per week, far above the statutory 40-hour working week set by the International Labour Organization (ILO) — a special United Nations agency set up to raise working and living standards throughout the world.

Employees like Li may feel disappointed after hearing the Standard Working Hours Committee (SWHC), set up by the government in April last year, announce that no consensus had been reached on the issue after the first round of public consultations ended on July 31.

Yet, a statutory SWH regime is not something new in many other countries.

“Globally, 41 percent of economies provide for a 40-hour working week, 44 percent a norm of between 40 and 48 hours per week,” says ILO specialist Jon Messenger, adding that 67 percent of the world’s developed economies have set a statutory 40-hour limit on standard hours.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the 48-hour weekly limit is dominant in developing economies, followed by a 40-hour limit in a number of mostly developed economies, such as South Korea, which adopted a 40-hour work week as early as 2003, according to the ILO.

The disastrous implications of long working hours are too much to be listed.

In a survey undertaken last year, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) found that more than 40 percent of workers in the food industry spent less than 15 minutes with their children every day due to employment commitments.

Long working hours have deprived Hongkongers of a work-life balance and could be associated with potential safety risks, including karoshi (death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion) and workplace accidents, notes Messenger.

“Every year, the European Union has to pay more than 50 billion euros (HK$509 billion) as the cost of workplace accidents,” he says.

Drained!“Even the routine desk job is not that safe as we may think. A minor error in documents or contracts could lead to business losses worth millions of dollars!”

Hong Kong workers hope for a limit on working hours to be enforced sooner rather than later. But, not everyone is happy with it. The momentum for legislation on standard working hours has stumbled as business groups take a tough stance against the idea.

One of the business sector’s biggest concerns is that it’s difficult to set an appropriate level of working hours that’s applicable to different industries.

“An SWH regime is definitely not a cure for all industries. It has to be flexible and allow for exemptions, given certain occupations and job responsibilities. And, for some seasonal professions, like teaching, accounting and agriculture, another way of calculating working hours should be introduced,” says Kim Tae-hyun, head of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) research center, adding that most countries have their own criteria according to their unique conditions.

In South Korea, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which forced a 40-hour working week, led to huge redundancies as many people were willing to work shorter hours so as to create more jobs.

In its “Report of the Policy Study on Standard Working Hours” published in June 2012, Hong Kong’s Labour Department estimated that if a 40-hour working week were introduced in the SAR, the number of affected employees would be about 2.38 million, representing a hefty 91.1 percent of full-time employees, and the corresponding increase in total wage bills would be up to HK$55.2 billion per annum.

Such staggering figures seem to set off alarm bells for Hong Kong’s economy and employers over the cost of an SWH regime.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce (HKGCC) argued that an SWH regime would undermine the city’s competitiveness and derail the local economy.

HKGCC Chief Executive Shirley Yuen warned that legislation would likely force employers to change their contract staff to part-time or casual workers, thus fragmenting jobs, exacerbating underemployment and reducing employers’ earnings.

‘Empty threat’

Yuen is not alone in her stance. In 2012, seven of Hong Kong’s largest business chambers submitted a joint letter to the Labour and Welfare Bureau, claiming that legislating SWH would hamper the city’s success.

However, Ng Chau-pei, chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU) — the SAR’s largest labor group — thinks that such concerns are an empty threat since Hong Kong’s enviable unemployment rate of 3.3 percent could give workers a strong hand as they push for a cap on working hours.

“In the short run, admittedly, some employees are likely to be laid off as employers may try desperately to lower their costs. But, in the long run, given the city’s booming labor market and full employment situation, employees could finally land jobs with reasonable working hours and payment,” said Ng.

“The possible decrease in their earnings is by no means caused by the introduction of an SWH regime, but the hidden fact is that employees are generally underpaid. If workers could only make a living by long working hours, why don’t they blame their tight-fisted employers rather than an SWH regime for less income? ”

And the labor shortage, Ng added, will lend employees more bargaining power since it’s not easy for employers to recruit workers.

In its latest paper to the Legislative Council’s manpower panel, the Labour and Welfare Bureau forecasts that Hong Kong will see its shortage of workers skyrocket to nearly 118,000 by 2022 — up from its projection two years ago of a shortage of 14,000 workers by 2018.

However, labor shortage may also give business groups ample reason to mount a strong opposition to SWH since companies, fretting with a severe labor shortage, may suffer more if such a law is enforced.

What’s worse, labor shortage, which leads to longer working hours, may drag the city’s economy down, making a great many employees lose their bargaining power as well as their jobs.

Ng pointed out it can be tempting to simply pin the sluggish economy, the rising unemployment rate and any other evils on the introduction of SWH. The point is that if business groups, which always claim working hours could be regulated by market mechanism, do believe in the power of a free economy, why do they bother to worry that an SWH law will affect our competitiveness and trigger manpower shortage in a laissez-faire market close to full employment with most employees working full-time, he argued.

As a member of SWHC, Ng is fully aware that legislation on SWH will finally come from a compromise between the business and labor sectors.

“SWH represent one of the basic labor rights that we should spare no effort in struggling for. You may think Hong Kong is only a few paces behind the 40-hour limit from the perspective of the city’s 45 median working hours. But what we are fighting to protect is not the average and median, but the extreme cases of overwork and underpayment. Such cases, extreme as they may be, are common among the city’s all walks of life,” he said.

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