The right to be heard

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 12:00am

One of the most popular corporate catch-phrases of a decade ago was 'customer care'. Every organisation, big or small, had to have a department where a team of smiling people with helpful demeanors could listen to gripes and resolve problems.

The service aimed to be courteous and caring. People would walk in filled with anger, and would walk out mostly feeling satisfied. It was a system designed to serve customers and let them know that they had the support of someone they could trust.

Then, five years ago, Asia was hit by economic hard times. As consumer demands fell, company profits declined and people lost their jobs. As the crisis deepened, the new buzz-word became 'down-sizing'. Among the first people to lose their jobs were those in customer care.

Last month, Hong Kong had 259,000 unemployed people, 7.2 per cent of the workforce. In the past year, more than 10,500 believed they had been unfairly dismissed or had not received proper payment and had gone to one of the government's customer-care departments, the Labour Tribunal.

Instead of receiving welcoming smiles and helpful advice, some have been told to drop their cases and go away. Without the benefit of legal representation, they have left the offices in Mongkok more confused and angrier than when they went in.

The government has not been hit as hard by the economic crisis as thousands of Hong Kong companies. While some departments have been restructured and there is talk of job and pay cuts, the civil service has not yet been affected in the same way as the private sector.

In the case of the Labour Tribunal, though, the workload of its staff has risen considerably - 37 per cent since 1995. This has, in turn, put increased pressure on the judicial system.

Policing labour practices is a serious business. People who have lost their jobs under questionable circumstances deserve the best help the government can provide. Few, if any, are likely to be lawyers, and they need to be told of their rights and how they can claim what they feel they are owed from their former employers.

Logistical strains affecting the Labour Tribunal must be resolved quickly. Officers should review all cases properly and carry out investigations when necessary. Unscrupulous employers are inevitable in such a difficult economic climate.

Our working rights cannot be eroded and every effort must be made to ensure the system set up to protect us functions properly.