8-hour day for bar benders a sticking point
Anita Lam and Denise Hung
Contractors reluctant to change
Main contractors would stand to lose 20 to 40 working days on each construction project if they yielded to bar benders' demands to cut 15 minutes from their current working day of eight hours and 15 minutes.
But a majority of the 700 striking bar benders who attended a meeting called by the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) yesterday, said they stood firm in their demands for eight-hour days.
Wong Kwok-kin, chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions - a rival union to the CTU - which is holding exclusive talks with employers, feared the strong stance of the workers may endanger negotiations expected to be held later this week.
'We heard some bar benders softened their stance at the meeting, while others said Nepalese workers should be paid the same rate as locals, and regular workers should receive the same increment as casual workers,' Mr Wong said. 'Employers may be scared by these additional demands.'
But CTU general secretary and lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said the workers' true stance could be gauged by results of a questionnaire completed by the striking workers at yesterday's meeting and that Mr Wong's interpretation of the workers' opinions was mere conjecture.
A spokesman from the Hong Kong Construction Association refused to assess the damage to the industry caused by the strike, but said more workers had returned to work in the past week. He said the association had not heard of any developer claiming losses against contractors because of the strike, which enters its 21st day today .
Government figures showed that as of Monday, 932 bar benders were working, compared with 600 a week ago.
The spokesman said an eight-hour day was not something contractors could easily agree upon because it affected construction deadlines.
'The construction of blocks involves a sequence of repetitive tasks, and workers are allowed to work only within the 12 hours after 7am,' he said. 'If the bar benders leave before they finish their work for the day, we don't simply lose 15 minutes, but also the rest of that day, because other specialists cannot begin their work.'
But Poon Man-hon, organising secretary of the CTU, said an eight-hour schedule was the norm in earlier years, before employers extended it without the unions' consent.
'The employers only calculate losses incurred by delays in projects,' Mr Poon said. 'Have they ever considered losses incurred by workers' injuries inflicted by exhaustion and overwork?'
Meanwhile, developers and contractors would not say whether some of them had agreed to increase the bar benders' daily wage to HK$950 before the end of their contracts.
A source familiar with the dispute told the South China Morning Post on Monday that several developers - including Sun Hung Kai Properties, which has 10 sites under construction - were paying workers directly their desired daily wage of HK$950, bypassing the contractors.
An executive for a top developer said this could be done by simply adding a clause in the developer's contract with the contractor - whose budget and expenses remained unaffected by the change, as long as the developers were willing to pay more than they had previously agreed.
But she said such a move could set a bad precedent in similar wage disputes in the future.