It's time to help people get off therelentless treadmill of work

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am

In his election platform, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen talked of increasing opportunities for education, training and retraining to upgrade the skills of the workforce and enhancing Hong Kong's competitiveness in the global market.

The chief executive has every reason to make such a call, as Hong Kong has a relatively unskilled workforce despite its wealth.

Only 18 per cent of its working population aged between 25 and 64 has received a tertiary education, while 35 per cent were educated to senior secondary level, 22 per cent junior secondary, and 25 per cent primary. By comparison, the average for developed countries are 30 per cent, 46 per cent, 23 per cent, and 0.5 per cent respectively.

Presumably, Mr Tsang would like Hong Kong people to embrace life-long learning, because only by climbing the learning ladder can the workforce acquire new skills to do new jobs with an increasingly high knowledge content in this service economy.

But what Mr Tsang may want to address is how Hong Kong people can find time to unwind and savour life, let alone upgrade themselves.

Although civil servants work no more than 44 hours - or 51/2 days - a week, the Employment Ordinance that governs working conditions for the majority of the workforce has no provisions for maximum working hours or a minimum wage.

The law merely stipulates that employers must give workers no less than one rest day - defined as a continuous period of not less than 24 hours - in every seven days.

In practice, most office workers work 51/2 days, and non-office workers six days, even though countries in the region, including the mainland, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and even poor Nepal, have adopted a five-day work week in recent years.

A 2004 study by the Census and Statistics Department found about 20 per cent of employees worked more than 60 hours a week, and 18 per cent between 50 and 59 hours.

Last year former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa ditched the government's long-standing opposition to capping maximum working hours and introducing a minimum wage, and pledged to adopt an 'open mind' on these issues.

Mr Tsang has since vowed to continue its dialogue with business and labour to reach consensus on the sensitive topics.

Arguably, productivity lies at the heart of these issues, and legislation may or may not be the best way to address them.

Mr Tsang may want to broaden discussion to address the fundamental problem facing Hong Kong - an unhealthy work-life balance that is not conducive to raising the workforce's productivity.

Social workers have long complained about the harmful effects on family life of parents spending long hours at work at the expense of time for their children and their own love life.

Society ends up paying the social costs of nursing dislocated families through high public spending on welfare.

The Hong Kong Council of Social Service has called for a five-day working week, echoing the United Nations' call for establishing 'family friendly' societies.

More critically, many Hong Kong people work so hard that they have no time to spare for education and training.

As economists have pointed out, to climb further up the economic ladder, Hong Kong will have to raise its productivity by working smarter, not harder.

That cannot be achieved without encouraging employers to spend more on training staff and to spare workers more time to enhance their knowledge.

Mr Tsang may want to adopt a recommendation of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions by setting up an office to promote a better reconciliation of work and non-work life and develop supportive social infrastructures to achieve a better balance between them.

The government should consider taking the lead to introduce a five-day work week by learning from Singapore, where civil servants work the equivalent of five days a week, but most government offices remain open for 51/2 days.

Singaporean businesses have been encouraged to adopt a five-day work week as a matter of policy, but reserve the right to ask workers to put in longer hours if needed by keeping a 51/2-day work week as a term of employment.

Hong Kong may also want to do more to encourage a culture of part-time work. Although unemployment, at 5.7 per cent, remains relatively high, some workers in full-time employment dread going to work every day for a variety of reasons. They include married women who want to spend more time with their children and professionals who want to slow down, but cannot yet afford to retire.

The benefits of promoting a shorter work week and part-time work are many - more jobs will be created, more people will remain in the workforce, and more workers will have more time to spend with their family and on their personal development.

Coupled with better provision of childcare services, part-time jobs should also help the government achieve its objective of encouraging single parents and others on welfare to take up employment and shake dependency on hand-outs.

As the population ages, allowing older people to remain in the workforce longer through working part-time should benefit the individuals as well as the community at large.

All these ideas are not fantasy. In the Netherlands, where the standard of living is among the highest in the world, 33 per cent of the people work part-time, and there is a culture of part-time employment, especially for women.

It is time Hong Kong made a determined effort to find a healthier split of the day to give equal emphasis to sleep, work and leisure.