Holiday discrimination has had its day

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am

We live in one of the most advanced economies in the world, yet our non-office workers are still being treated like second-class citizens. By law, there are two holiday schedules - one for office workers, another for those who are not. Everyone is entitled to 12 statutory holidays, but those in white-collar jobs get five extra days. This is a legacy from the colonial era. The statutory holidays were traditionally set for local Chinese, most of whom worked in factories, while the ruling British elite enjoyed all the extra days, including Easter and Christmas.

More than a dozen unionists and their supporters rallied yesterday to demand including those extra days for all workers. They pointed out that many could not join them because they had to work through this Easter holiday. Their demand deserves public support. It is discriminatory to have two classes of workers. It gives the impression that society values one group over another.

The city has more than 3.5 million workers. Of these, 2 million have only 12 statutory holidays. Companies have workers on factory and shop floors toiling on general holidays while their office colleagues have those days off. But nowadays, the distinction between the two types of workers is largely arbitrary. The economy was once based on manufacturing; it is now based on services and information. Even those who work out of factories operate increasingly sophisticated computer terminals. It is, therefore, only fair for all to have the same number of statutory holidays.

The case for non-office workers having the same holidays as their office counterparts is compelling for another reason: they also have a longer workweek. While most office workers work five or 51/2 days, non-office workers typically work six days a week. Since 2006, the government has tried to promote a five-day week by adopting it for civil servants. In practice, the call has mainly been heeded by public bodies and big private companies, and the beneficiaries are largely office workers.

For years, labour leaders have agitated to cap maximum working hours and impose a general minimum wage. This has been highly contentious with employers, and the government is reluctant to impose them. But giving non-office workers five more statutory holidays is a much less controversial proposal as its impact on employers would be marginal. That is not to say, however, that the move should be viewed as a means to placate labour's demands for a wage floor and a cap on working hours.

The government, in its publicity campaigns, has made it a point to encourage people to spend more quality time with families. This is advertised as a way to improve relationships and reduce domestic conflict and violence. Officials also like to promote life-long learning, with subsidies and deductions for workers to take courses and pursue qualifications that would improve their career prospects. Giving workers more holidays would help to achieve all these aims.

Bosses may initially be reluctant to grant extra days off but they should consider the long-term benefits. Productivity is not measured by the number of hours workers put in their jobs but by the efficiency and thoroughness with which they complete them. Well-rested, alert and happy workers are far more productive than those who are tired and irritable.

In a civilised and prosperous society, people should have more time to themselves - to relax, pursue hobbies and do the things they enjoy doing. It's time we put this colonial legacy behind us.