Employment Law

We all deserve a fair working environment

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 December, 2010, 12:00am

Given the many years of debate conducted by political parties and government officials, businesses and unions regarding the establishment of a minimum wage and the level appropriate for Hong Kong, one would hope that debate is already far advanced on the next pressing labour principle for discussion. In his policy address in October, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said he had asked for a study of standard working hours following the introduction of minimum wage legislation. But rather than labour through the motions once again about the pros and cons of setting work limits in the job market, it appears the general public already has a clear consensus - there is a need to legislate on standard hours and a majority feel that any increase in labour costs would be an acceptable trade-off to ensure we all have a better work-life balance.

According to a South China Morning Post/TNS survey of 1,000 of the city's business and opinion leaders, 70 per cent agree there is a need to legislate standard working hours, with most agreeing that around 44 hours a week would be the appropriate limit. Furthermore, 58 per cent felt they could accept an increase in prices if that were to occur as the result of the working hours limit. Respondents appeared to recognise the law would need to be flexible and many suggested exemptions for various industries. An inflexible, blanket limit would do more harm than good, restricting people's job opportunities even when they would prefer to work while disabling certain shift-reliant industries.

But the results nevertheless give us a clear indication that the public has accepted the concept of legislating maximum working hours. Asian cultures are often said to be more prepared to work longer hours, but many office troglodytes will acknowledge that this is often down to the fear of being seen to leave work early. Since it is against office etiquette to leave early, workers would rather procrastinate than complete their work.

Where the fallacy that working longer is working harder is so prevalent, the government should feel more obliged to set working hours regulations. Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan and Singapore all have more comprehensive labour regulations than us. Around 40 per cent of us already work at least 48 hour weeks, while one in 10 of the workforce clocks up 60 hours or more.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from the survey is the clear recognition that labour laws are not only there to protect workers from exploitation, but also to enshrine a principle of equality towards all classes of the working public. Everybody should have the same right to achieve the work-life balance that suits them, even if it is at a small cost to the overall economy. Everyone, whether a professional working in a high-rise office block in Central or a manual labourer working late-night shifts, should be given the same opportunity to build a family, develop hobbies and find other forms of self-improvement. That 79 per cent of respondents felt the government should give all employees the full 17 days of paid holidays is also indicative of this belief. At the moment, professionals whose industries do not work on days such as Easter Saturday or Boxing Day have five more days of holidays than labourers.

It is time the government reflected the commonly held beliefs of the general public and begin dispelling the myth that working longer is working harder. There should be no procrastination in legislating on a fair working environment for everyone.


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