Scramble to revise doctors' work rules

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2005, 12:00am

Hospital Authority fails to impress union with bid to stem legal challenge

The Hospital Authority is trying to stop a legal challenge from its doctors by creating a special taskforce to improve their working conditions.

But the olive branch presented at recent negotiations has failed to impress some frontline staff, who say the authority is not trustworthy as it has repeatedly failed to honour promises to relieve their workloads.

The Public Doctors' Association, the largest doctor union, is pressing for a rest day every week and time off as compensation for working on public holidays.

The union also wants the authority to honour the 44-hour work week, as stated in some doctors' contracts.

If the authority loses the case, to be heard in the High Court in January, it may face claims of tens of millions of dollars from 4,500 doctors for overtime and compensation for public holidays they have worked since 1996.

Three doctors will use their cases as the 'test cases' in court.

Some doctors complain that they still have to work more than 70 hours a week and sometimes for more than 36 hours non-stop.

The association filed a claim on behalf of 165 doctors in the Labour Tribunal in March 2002 for public holidays and rest days worked since 1996.

The tribunal estimated at the time that the cost involved would exceed $60 million.

The tribunal transferred the case to the High Court and urged the two parties to settle their dispute through talks, warning they could face a marathon legal battle. It is understood that the authority recently approached the association and proposed setting up a taskforce to improve doctors' work conditions.

Association president Wong Tak-cheung said it would hold a special meeting with members soon to make a decision. He said some doctors wanted an out-of-court settlement to minimise legal costs, which had reached about $2 million.

'However, some doctors want us to fight on. Members also hold different views over the number of work hours. Nobody knows if 50 or 60 hours [a week] is regarded as reasonable.'

One of the three lead plaintiffs and former association president, Leung Ka-lau, said the legal battle was a matter of principle, not money.

'We want the authority to stop taking advantage of its staff,' Dr Leung said.

Yau Fong-chi, president of the Frontline Doctors' Association, said the authority's proposal of a new working group was not impressive.

'The authority has promised lots of things in the past but it has done too little. Only the court can protect us and the public. Our jobs are about life and death.'

An authority spokesman said that as the matter was still subject to a legal process, it would not be appropriate to reveal any details.

The spokesman said generally doctors would not work on Sundays, but if they did they would get a day off in lieu. They would also have a similar arrangement for public holidays.