Airport workers forced to be on job while ill, says unionist

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2006, 12:00am

Airport baggage and cargo handlers are being forced to work while unwell and on medication because new restrictions on sick leave are eating into their overtime, a unionist said yesterday.

The majority of Hong Kong Airport Services (HAS) staff rely on overtime to boost their monthly income by up to two-thirds. Staff said the new rules mean they must choose between losing overtime pay or working while sick.

Since May, staff of HAS - one of three cargo handling companies at the airport - applying for sick leave have been barred from doing extra shifts on their days off for two weeks.

This means that workers who want to maintain their incomes have to squeeze all their extra shifts into regular work days. Staff claiming more than four days of sick leave in six months may not change their shifts.

'Squeezing all extra shifts into weekdays means we have to work 13 hours and sometimes even 16 hours nonstop,' one worker said.

The 900 HAS cargo handlers and drivers at Chek Lap Kok airport receive HK$6,000 to HK$8,000 a month for a five-day week. Most count on extra shifts at weekends for extra income - earning up to HK$4,000 a month overtime.

Ah Yuen, a recovering cancer patient who needs to go back to hospital for regular check-ups, fell victim to the new policy in June.

'I tried to switch shifts with others for the check-up, but sometimes this involves changing not just one, but several shifts, as company rules say we should have an eight-hour break between shifts.'

As a result of the rule change, many have stopped seeking sick leave even when they are ill.

Ip Wai-ming, chairman of the Staff and Workers Union of Hong Kong Civil Airlines, who had helped staff negotiate with the company, said the new policy may breach the Disability Discrimination Ordinance.

Mr Ip yesterday referred the cases of four staff to the Equal Opportunities Commission.

'The workers are being penalised for their health conditions,' he said.

An Airport Authority guideline issued in June says staff should not work while tired, on drugs or having consumed alcohol. Workers taking medication may be held liable for accidents, an authority spokeswoman said.

HAS personnel manager Patricia Chan Lee Pui-hing said it was not unusual for ill staff to work. The new policy was meant to provide sufficient rest for those who were ill.