All worked up

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A government committee has been set up to look into limiting Hongkongers’ working hours – but it’s facing stronger opposition from the business sector every day. Samuel Lai works overtime to weigh up the argument

Economist John Keynes estimated, in the 1930s, that his grandchildren would work no more than 15 hours a week. British philosopher Bertrand Russell once suggested that people could work for four hours a day and devote the rest of their time to leisure due to our ‘modern methods of production’. But – unless you’re super-rich or super-lucky – these great thinkers were way off the mark. If they visited Hong Kong tomorrow, they’d realise just how overly optimistic they’d been. Welcome to one of the world’s hardest working cities, where sleep is a luxury and stress is the norm.

But all this could soon change, if a new government committee finds that there needs to be a cap on working hours in the city – and then the authority brings in such legislation. In April, the three-year Standard Working Hours Committee was set up to investigate. And if it recommends a limit – and that limit is imposed – then people like Chi-keung Lee, a chef at a Chinese restaurant in Tsuen Wan, would actually be able to live a normal, healthy life. “My whole life is basically: wake up, go to work, finish work, go home, eat a bit, sleep and then repeat the same cycle the next day,” he says. “When I get home, my son is already in bed. I have no time for family.”

One out of every 10 employees in Hong Kong, like Lee, has to work more than 60 hours a week to make ends meet, according to a government report on working hours, published last year. And a survey conducted last month by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions found that more than 40 percent of food industry workers who were interviewed spend less than 15 minutes with their children every day due to employment commitments. “Workers shouldn’t be slaves to work,” says Man-hon Poon, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions spokesman. “The long working hours are depriving Hongkongers of some very precious things: family life, health and rest.”

The conventional nine-to-five working hours in Hong Kong have become something of an urban myth for many. Last year’s government report into working hours found that full-time employees work, on average, 49 hours per week – significantly higher than the 40-hour working week suggested by the International Labour Organisation. In fact, Hong Kong clocked in at fifth in terms of longest working hours over a year among 72 countries, according to the 2012 Price and Earnings Report by UBS. As Hong Kong University’s social sciences professor, Cho-bun Leung, who sits on the new government committee, puts it: “The problem of long working hours in Hong Kong is severe.”

It’s statistics like these that have driven the government to begin to investigate setting a standard working hours policy for Hong Kong – indeed, something labour unions have wanted for years. But some have concerns over the committee’s lengthy term. “Why does it have to be three years?” questions Poon. “The Legislative Council’s present term would end by then.” However, the government itself is treating the exercise as a fact finding mission at the moment. “The administration is keeping an open mind on whether we should eventually legislate,” says a government spokesman. 

Under the committee’s plans, there is to be a public consultation into whether legislation to cap the working hours should eventually be implemented – but it hasn’t yet begun and it isn’t clear as to when it will. For the moment, it’s a case of waiting to see what the committee comes up with over the coming weeks.

Workers across the city are, for obvious reasons, hoping that a limit will be imposed sooner rather than later. However, not everyone is happy. Businesses across town could be set to lose millions of dollars if caps are enforced. The opposition to any legislation from companies of all sizes is getting stronger all the time. Over the past few weeks, the Hong Kong Business Community Joint Conference, a coalition of more than 50 business associations, has declared its opposition to any law imposed. Aaron Shum, conference spokesman, stresses that legislation would limit business adaptability and flexibility – and might lead to waves of small and medium–sized business closures. “The last financial meltdown already slammed us to the ground,” he says. “We’d be, in fact, under the ground if there is a working hours regulation in place when the next economic downturn hits.” Hong Kong might also ‘lose its competitive edge’, he adds.

Shum is certainly not alone in his view. In November last year, seven of Hong Kong’s largest business chambers – including the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce – sent a joint letter to the government’s Labour and Welfare Bureau, claiming that ‘the far-reaching implications of regulating standard working hours have the potential to rock the fundamentals which have underlined Hong Kong’s success’.

Another concern from the business sector is that it’s difficult to set an appropriate level of working hours which is applicable across different industries. “Teachers during exam periods might have to correct papers at home,” says Shum. “Executives need to go on business trips. How are we going to calculate those working hours?” 

But Poon thinks these are all empty threats. “Hong Kong ranks third in the World Competitiveness Ranking 2013, behind the United States and Switzerland,” he says. “Both of those countries have a working hours limit.” Poon adds that more than 100 countries around the globe have some form of cap in place – even Singapore and South Korea. “Have the economies of all these countries been wrecked by a standard working hours legislation?” he asks.

Long working hours can have disastrous implications, claim experts. Doctors have long complained that overworking could lead to medical errors and patient negligence. There have been instances of containers falling off operating cranes in Kwai Chung Harbour as workers have allegedly been too tired during their long shifts. In March, a taxi driver allegedly dozed off as he was at the wheel, causing a traffic accident, where seven were injured. “Similar traffic accidents could be avoided with a working hour limit,” says Poon. “In Europe, there are strict regulations that limit the daily driving period to nine hours.”

Professor Leung maintains there’s no need to fear this legislation, should the task force come out in favour of it. “Most countries have their own criteria, according to their unique conditions,” he says. “Certain employees can be exempt from a working hours limit. Some companies make exemptions by salary level, others by occupation or job responsibility. There can still be many arrangements to make it flexible.”

Another major issue at stake is that many employees in Hong Kong don’t get overtime pay. Last year’s government report points out that 23.4 percent of all workers did overtime work but nearly half of them – around 316,400 employees – were paid nothing for the extra hours. “It’s like eating at a restaurant without paying the bill,” says Poon. “If a worker has to work more than the required hours, then he should be paid for the extra time involved. It’s only fair.”

Shum, however, in contrast, thinks that this issue should be regulated by the market mechanism. “No-one works overtime for nothing,” he says. “There are bound to be bonuses or salary increases. Employees who are dissatisfied can quit and change jobs. That’s what’s great about a free market.” In response, though, Poon says: “Often the workers do not have a choice. The entire industry is like this. Only legislation could regulate overtime pay.”

The new committee, which next meets on July 24, is aiming to be fair and constructive in its work. And it could bring about huge change for an extremely hard working city. “The standard working hours debate is indeed a controversial one,” says Professor Leung. “The decision on whether we ought to have legislation should be based on solid statistics and hard evidence. Let’s hope we find something to agree on. I’m prudently optimistic on eventually reaching a consensus.”


Standard working hours: how other countries do it

South Korea: 40 hours/week

If you work in South Korea, you needn’t toil for more than 40 hours every week. Sounds like a dream for most Hongkongers! The country introduced the mandatory cap for firms with more than 1,000 employees in 2004 – and then gradually expanded it to encompass companies with fewer workers over the following years, eventually reaching a full inclusion for all in July 2011. The cautious approach was designed to reduce the negative impact on small and medium-sized businesses. There are 12 industries, including insurance, finance and media, who are exempt from the regulation.

France: 35 hours/week

The French adopted the 35-hour working week in 2000. The regulation was made in the hope that the country’s soaring unemployment rates would be reduced and a better division of labour would be attained, as some of the nation’s employees were unemployed while others worked pretty savage long hours. However, it was not without its critics. Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s Prime Minister, said last year that the regulation had ‘caused difficulties’ for small businesses. There is now a push for the regulation to be relaxed to help some companies survive. 

The USA: 40 hours/week

The US Fair Labour Standards Act is a federal statute that provides a comprehensive protection net for American workers. It includes both a national minimum wage and a working hour regulation. Under the act, employees who work more than 40 hours a week must receive one-and-a-half times their regular rates of pay as overtime. Executives, professionals and sales staff are generally not covered by the law. 

Singapore: 44 hours/week

Under Singapore’s Employment Act, the cap on working hours is 44 hours a week. Employees get one-and-a-half times their regular rate of pay for overtime. Employers who want their staff to work for more than 12 hours (a maximum 14 hours) a day are required to apply for overtime exemption after obtaining the employee’s consent in writing.

China: 44 hours/week

Since 1995, the Mainland has had a 44-hour working week in place, with a 150 percent rate applying to hours worked beyond that (it’s what the legislation dictates – who knows how many firms stick to it…). If the employer wants you to work overtime, though, he or she must first consult your trade union. 

Karen Shunqi Lin

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