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Monday, September 22, 2014, 09:55

Drained!

By Luo Weiteng

Measuring credentials of prosperity

Vivian Li may feel she’s in the wrong job having seen the results of a survey conducted by Robert Half, an American human resources consulting firm, in November last year.

According to the survey, 84 percent of respondents in the finance and accounting professions said their hard overtime work had not gone unnoticed after they were rewarded with an average 39-percent rise in overtime pay. Nearly half of them said they also got handsome bonuses.

But the chilly reality is that more than 650,000 employees among the city’s 2.81-million workforce, including government employees and full-time domestic helpers, have to work more than the required number of hours. Only 51.8 percent got overtime pay or holidays in lieu of extra pay, while the remaining 48.2 percent failed to get paid for the extra hours worked, according to the Labour Department’s 2012 Report of Policy Study on Standard Working Hours.

When Hong Kong’s manufacturing industry was in its heyday, the overtime pay for workers on weekends and holidays could be three times the normal rate, recalled Ng Chau-pei, chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions. However, as the report pointed out, the city’s structural shift towards a service economy not only led to many people “working longer hours owing to operational needs and for maintaining Hong Kong’s competitive edge”, it somehow made overtime pay disappear.

“One major reason is that assembly-line jobs are easier to be quantified by working hours compared with jobs in the services and knowledge industries,” said Ng. “But that’s definitely not an excuse for denying workers overtime pay,” he said.

According to International Labour Organization specialist Jon Messenger, 71 percent of global economies, mostly in the Asia-Pacific region, offer at least a 25-percent increase for overtime pay. But, it’s quite hard to bring the overtime pay issue into detailed discussions, said Ng, a member of the Standard Working Hours Committee (SWHC).

The SWHC, set up to advise the government on the working hours row, including whether a statutory Standard Working Hours (SWH) regime or other alternatives should be introduced, completed public consultations at the end of July.

Having received 40,000 written comments through 40 large-scale consultation forums and obtained first-hand data with some 10,000 visits to households, as well as public and private establishments, the committee will submit two reports on public comments and data at the end of the year, followed by a final report early next year, Ng said.

SWHC Chairman Leong Che-hung said last month that before further consultations could begin, the proposal for a 44-hour working week, plus overtime pay at 1.5 times the normal wages, remains distant.

High productivity

Messenger points out that it’s time to do away with the idea that long working hours would ensure high productivity.

Contrary to crude national stereotypes of prudent, hard-working Germans and lazy Greeks, latest statistics from the European Industrial Relations Observatory showed that Greek workers, with 40.1 weekly hours of work in full employment last year, in fact, put in longer hours than most of their European Union (EU) counterparts.

However, it’s a different picture when it comes to productivity, a more accurate indicator of work completed. Greece fell much down the pack with a rating of 76.3 (below the EU average of 100) while Germany, ranking with 123.7, was on top together with the Netherlands and France.

“Ultimately, all working time reductions can be paid for by productivity increase,” said Messenger. But, the Hong Kong Labour Department’s 2012 report remains suspicious of such a statement. It claims evidence is still thin that less working hours can, if overwork surely cannot, become a credential of prosperity.

The business sector reckons that even if a person pulling all-nighters is less productive than a well-rested substitute, it may still be cheaper to pay one person to work 100 hours a week than two people putting in 50 hours each.

Such disagreement makes a consensus between employers and employees unattainable, said Ng, who would like to see the government, which doesn’t want to take a stand on the issue, play a leading role in pressing for such legislation.

“For a very long time, the city’s laissez-faire economy makes a host of people believe that any social issue, including labor relations, should be regulated by the market mechanism instead of government legislation.

“But, without the coordination of the government, I’m afraid we might have to wait for another decade to resolve this year-long dispute,” Ng said.

 

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