Work-to-rule wrong way to settle dispute

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2012, 12:00am
 

Hong Kong's firefighters have earned great public respect. Not only do they work long and irregular hours, their job is also the most physically demanding and dangerous among the disciplined services. Over the years, some have died while saving lives in deadly blazes. The tragedies are sad reminders of the force's dedication to protecting public safety.

Recently, firefighters voted overwhelmingly to reject the offer by management to cut night shifts, citing public safety as the reason. The proposal would have reduced their weekly working hours from 54 to 51, still three hours short of their demand. It is reassuring to see public safety comes before the firefighters' own interests.

The suggestion of giving each firefighter an extra 12-hour break at night once a month may look negligible, but it translates into a loss of 200 firefighters on duty each night. That is one less fire engine in every three stations to be called out, according to a union. It is difficult to see how such a proposal conforms to the government's principle that any change to reduce staff working hours must not undermine public service or cost taxpayers more. If public safety is to be jeopardised, as the union claims, it warrants an explanation as to why the proposal has been put forward as a solution.

We hope public safety is not an excuse by the unions to continue fighting for a 48-hour week. As most civil servants switched to a five-day week a few years ago, it is only natural for firefighters to step up the campaign to rationalise their hours. While the public are sympathetic to their cause, the government is also fair in adhering to the revenue-neutral principle. It is estimated that a 48-hour week would require an extra 690 officers, or HK$270 million a year, to maintain the same level of service. Our firefighters deserve better working conditions. But instead of resorting to work-to-rule, the firefighters should continue exploring other options with the management in a rational manner. Any change must not compromise public safety.

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