Working hours issue needs prompt attention

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 October, 2010, 12:00am

As with the debate over a minimum hourly wage, discussion about maximum working hours promptly exposes the vast gulf between the views of employers and union leaders. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, having raised the matter in his policy address, finds himself at the heart of an increasingly heated debate. It is good he voiced the issue and that Hong Kong is finally talking about its merits. Now that it is on the table he has to make every effort to steer the sides to common ground so that it can become reality.

Tsang knows that will not be easy or straightforward. The minimum wage level that will be announced next month took years to bring to fruition. Bosses opposed it and fought hard to set it low, arguing that it would lead to lay-offs, reduced profits and companies going under. They are making the same arguments with standard working hours.

The benefits of legislating for a maximum working week and overtime pay and conditions are well proven. Hong Kong may only now be broaching the issue, but it has been a given for workers in developed countries for 70 years and more. They have time to relax, exercise and improve knowledge and training. There is no disputing that a good work-life balance is essential for a healthy society.

Long hours have the opposite effect. They cause stress, fatigue, tiredness and a lack of sleep that impacts on work productivity and quality. Health and family relations deteriorate - studies have shown they can lead to divorce, obesity, illnesses, accidents and suicide. The International Labour Organisation recommends a 40-hour working week, but 40 per cent of Hong Kong employees do at least 48 and about one in 10 clocks up 60 or more.

Asians have a reputation for being hard working and figures put Hong Kong employees near the top of the region's working-hour league. That doesn't necessarily make us more productive or better workers. The absence of a minimum wage and the fact that year-by-year we are on average gradually putting in longer hours has pointed more towards poor bargaining power.

A minimum wage has to be set at a level that ensures a decent standard of living. The same thinking has to be put into determining standard working hours. The number per week shouldn't be set so high that the benefits are eliminated. Similarly, the conditions attached to them can not be so stringent that people wanting to earn extra income are denied that right. Business should not suffer.

Authorities also have to keep in mind that a minimum wage and standard working hours are intrinsically linked. Wages that are so low as to not afford a sustainable living require second or third jobs to fill the gap. This makes the process of setting limits worthless. It is unfortunate that the government has taken on the issues separately.

Tsang has to fix that oversight by working quickly to put maximum hours and conditions in place. The issue is a thorny one for bosses, so striking a worthwhile balance with unions and employee groups will not be easy. Asia's trend towards longer working hours continues to grow and Hong Kong is in the forefront. That should change - not just for workers' sakes, but for the overall health of the economy and the community.

Our legislative process can be slow and Tsang's term ends in 2012. There is no guarantee his successor will be interested in improving workers' conditions, so getting the process under way promptly is important. The sooner Hong Kong embraces the standards of other developed economies, the better off we will be as a society.