Unions fear meal benefits will be cut

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 December, 2010, 12:00am

Unions fear employers may take a cue from a government reminder on labour rights to cut employees' mealtime benefits before the minimum wage takes effect next year.

Draft guidelines on the operation of the minimum wage say workers required to spend their meal and rest breaks in their place of employment - mainly those in the catering industry or security guards - should be paid for them at the minimum hourly rate of HK$28.

The document, prepared for discussion by legislators on Thursday, also states that 'if both the worker and employer have agreed to include meal time as working hours, the employer shall not unilaterally amend or cancel the agreements'.

The Confederation of Trade Unions said this could serve as a reminder for business owners to try to negotiate or force through changes before the minimum wage comes into force on May 1.

'Aware of when they need to fork out an extra HK$28 for meal breaks, employers may request, or even force the employees to sign a new contract,' the confederation's policy researcher Poon Man-hon said.

He cited the example of fast-food chain Cafe de Coral, which moved to cut paid meal breaks for its staff last month but backed down after a public outcry and the threat of a boycott.

The confederation said the clause in the guidelines was necessary for legal clarity but posed a de facto risk to employees' rights. 'Although the law states contract amendments require employees' agreement, workers worried about losing their jobs have no room to say no,' Poon said, urging staff to closely examine the terms of any new contract.

The Federation of Trade Unions said such exploitation was inevitable.

'Similar cases already exist, although the new law may make matters worse,' lawmaker Ip Wai-ming said. 'We need standard working hours to step up protection for the workers.'

Meanwhile, the MTR Corporation said it would top up the salaries of contract staff who are being paid less than HK$28 an hour before the minimum wage comes in.

The company said it would raise the wages of about 2,500 contract workers after the minimum wage law was passed by the Legislative Council on January 5.