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Tuesday, May 31, 2016, 23:34

Pragmatic approach is the best way to resolve standard working hours issue

By Ho Lok-sang

Pro-labor groups in Hong Kong have been campaigning for a standard working hours law in Hong Kong. This would require that employers asking their employees to work over the standard hours pay more for each extra hour worked. The standard hours would be the same across all industries and occupations. Labor representatives even walked away from the Labour Advisory Board because they said neither the government nor the employer representatives had shown willingness to contemplate legislating standard working hours across the board.

Pragmatic approach is the best way to resolve standard working hours issue I am disappointed that labor groups appear to be more interested in money than in health issues and that they are reluctant to contemplate anything other than what they put on the table. It is true Hong Kong’s working hours are rather long, and that long working hours can harm people’s health and family life. But standard working hours legislation, without a ceiling on the hours worked, will not help. Health and family life may still give way to earnings. This will defeat the purpose of the legislation.

The position of labor groups appears to be buttressed by a recent survey by UBS, the Swiss investment bank. The survey reports that Hong Kong people normally work more than 50 hours a week — the longest of 71 cities polled. This figure does not square with the figures obtained by the more scientific and more comprehensive surveys conducted by the Census and Statistics Department (C&SD). According to the 2015 Report on Annual Earnings and Hours Survey, the median working hours per week for all workers is 44.5 hours. For males it is slightly longer, at 45.7 hours per week. About a quarter of all workers work more than 50.8 hours, and about a quarter of all male workers work more than 54 hours. On the other hand, a quarter of all workers work less than 40.6 hours per week. I trust the C&SD figures more than the UBS figures. These figures indicate that we need to do something about the situation. In a previous column, I advocated legislating maximum working hours. This means that employees should not work more than the legal maximum working hours per week, even if employers pay them more and even if they want to take up employers’ offers.

The UK has a very sensible law for maximum working hours. In the UK, under the “working time directive” or “working time regulations” as the law is sometimes called, employees cannot work more than 48 hours a week on average over 17 weeks. For those aged under 18, the maximum is eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.

The law does not say anything about compensation, because compensation is not the main focus. The health of workers is.

The UK’s maximum working hours law does allow some flexibility for practical considerations. They also appear very reasonable, and I would highly recommend that Hong Kong consider the British model.

The UK does allow voluntary opting out, but there are preconditions. First is that this must be entirely voluntary. An employee who refuses to opt out cannot be sacked or treated unfairly for refusing to comply with his employer’s request. Then there are specific occupations for which opting out is not allowed. These include airline staff, workers on ships or boats, workers in the road transport industry (particularly delivery drivers of vehicles over 3.5 metric tons) and security guards on a vehicle carrying high-value goods. We can see that all these occupations relate to safety or security. The exclusion for opting out is to ensure workers get sufficient rest so that they can work efficiently.

In Britain, workers who have opted out can cancel their opt-out agreement by giving seven days’ notice — or three months’ notice for those who have a written opt-out agreement. Employers cannot force workers to cancel an opt-out agreement.

There are no standard working hours that apply to all occupations across all industries in the UK — although they have maximum working hours. We can see that even with maximum working hours, the UK allows flexibility. Allowing some flexibility is the best solution for everyone, while sticking to a rigid position clearly is not.

It is understandable that labor groups always want a better compensation package. Some employers may be in the position to offer their workers a better deal. The Labour Advisory Committee, except for the labor group representatives, has already agreed that employers and employees should have a contract about what are normal working hours. This agreement may stipulate the extra pay applicable to the extra working hours. But we need to understand that some employers may be struggling to survive. Imposing a uniform standard across the board could be too much for some employers — with the result that workers may also lose their jobs.

As with most things in life, we need to be pragmatic.

The author is an adjunct professor at Lingnan University.

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