Break with colonial tradition

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 September, 2005, 12:00am

Having returned from holiday over the Mid-Autumn Festival long weekend, many people are probably planning their next vacation destination at Christmas. This year, apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day, December 27 is also a general holiday, as Christmas Day falls on a Sunday.

Some people may even be thinking about how they will spend next year's Easter, when Good Friday, the Saturday and Easter Monday are all holidays.

Even though most Hong Kong people are non-Christian, these two important festivals in the Christian calendar have long been public holidays.

While the two dates are religiously significant for Christians, they are also appreciated by non-Christians for the holidays they are able to enjoy.

Yet, a much less discussed fact is that these two Christian festivals do not mean a lot to perhaps half the working population - as they do not get the days off on these occasions.

In Hong Kong, there are, in fact, two holiday schedules: one for office workers - who are eligible for 17 days of general holidays a year - and one for non-office workers, who are entitled to only 12 days of statutory holidays.

In many companies, it is not uncommon for workers on the factory and shop floors to toil through Easter and Christmas, while their colleagues in the accounts and administration departments are away.

Compare the two lists and it is not hard to tell that the differences probably sprang from Hong Kong's colonial legacy. Essentially, the statutory holidays are for Chinese, and mark all the important festivals on the Lunar calendar, including Lunar New Year, and the Ching Ming, Tuen Ng, and Mid-Autumn festivals.

The general holidays include all the statutory holidays, but also holidays for Christmas and Easter, which could only be significant to the ruling British class when they were first introduced here.

Since 1997, Buddha's birthday, which falls on the eighth day of the fourth Lunar month, has also been a general holiday. However, while it was done as a mark of respect for the many Chinese who are Buddhists, it has not been made a statutory holiday.

As a labour issue, there is arguably no problem with having two holiday schedules, just as many companies give more leave to veteran members of staff than those who have only joined recently.

But when a society that claims to be a world-class city - where east meets west - has two holiday schedules with cultural, religious and racial overtones, something is not quite right.

What if Hong Kong were to have just one holiday schedule for all? Presumably, it could be done by making the general holidays into statutory ones enjoyed by all, or by merging the two and making a decision on how many days off everyone should be entitled to.

By law, apart from the statutory holidays, Hong Kong employees are entitled to just seven days' annual leave, which is low by international standards.

Businesses and labour unions are engaged in serious discussions over the controversial issues of introducing a cap on maximum working hours and a minimum wage, but a consensus is unlikely to be reached soon.

What if they were to change their focus to improving the lot of the working class by giving them five more statutory holidays. The benefit would be immediate, and the additional costs to business would be much more bearable.

Hong Kong would also be eliminating one form of discrimination with a colonial origin.

C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy