Swire Group

Good foundations can boost labour relations

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2007, 12:00am

The stability of Hong Kong's labour relations belies its once tumultuous past - most notably in the 1960s when widespread industrial tension sparked off large-scale unrest across the community.

Thanks to advances in modern management practices and joint efforts by the government, employers and employees, a framework has since been established to create the steady labour relations environment that Hong Kong now enjoys.

This important evolution started in the late 1960s, when the government engaged a group of companies to pioneer a 'joint consultation committee system' (JCCS) - a mechanism for managing labour relations through systematic consultation with staff representatives - with a view to promoting its adoption by local employers after the unrest.

Among the corporate trailblazers involved was Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company (Haeco), which, according to its executive general manager (personnel), Thomas Ng Sze-ho, was selected because it had a large blue-collar workforce and was a unique supplier in its market. Both were seen to be characteristics that increased the risk of labour tension.

Established in 1950, Haeco specialises in aircraft repair and maintenance. Mr Ng said the company had no formal system for communication between management and staff before taking part in the JCCS initiative. The work consultative committee (WCC) it established in 1968 to take forward this concept set the foundation for regular communication between its management and staff in a formal framework.

Since then, Haeco has moved apace with Hong Kong's labour relations evolution, experiencing its trials and tribulations along the way, including a rocky inception for the WCC amid initial suspicion and sometimes confrontation between the management and staff. But by the mid-1970s, the WCC had become a platform for cordial and constructive communication between the two sides. By the mid-1980s, Haeco began to use this framework to engage greater employee participation in policy-making that affected their welfare, such as work arrangements during typhoons and sick leave, Mr Ng said.

In the late 1990s, Haeco moved further ahead with the adoption of a partnership concept aimed at fostering among staff a sense of ownership of the corporate vision and engaging them as strategic partners to the management and shareholders in maximising the joint benefits of the three sides. Mr Ng said that although staff generally supported the spirit of this initiative, they resisted it initially because of the fundamental change to corporate culture and mindset that it necessitated.

'To put the partnership approach in practice, we had to replace the traditional system of seniority-based pay and promotion with one based on merit so we would be able to maximise our corporate goals,' he said.

'Moreover, some managers had to be persuaded to accept the bigger involvement staff would have in corporate staff-related policy formulation.'

To dispel staff worries and enhance their understanding of the partnership concept, Haeco held detailed discussions with its managers. It also began to organise an annual seminar to which impartial academics would be invited as speakers on staff representation-related subjects.

Building blocks

'Works consultative committee' started in 1968 as a formal mechanism for management-employee communication

Staff relations goals have evolved from consultation through participation to the present partnership

The partnership approach has generated positive changes in corporate culture and staff mindset