Hong Kong needs standard working hours

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 5:35am

The long-awaited Labour Department report on standard working hours is a hefty 344 pages. It provides a wealth of information about the experience of a dozen countries and offers 27 scenarios for the impact on Hong Kong's economy and workforce of their introduction here. It seems impressive for the depth and breadth of its coverage of a topic sensitive to the business community. Inevitably, it concludes that such a law would have a big financial impact, adding between HK$8 billion and HK$55.2 billion a year to labour costs. For all the research, though, an important matter has been neglected: how the lives of Hong Kong people would be affected.

That is, after all, the purpose of setting a limit on weekly working hours and ensuring paid overtime. Employees need a life outside work to devote to family, recreation and rest. These are the fundamentals of a happy, healthy society - matters that can easily be overlooked in the quest for improved productivity and turning a better profit. It is the reason Hong Kong is having such a discussion in the first place.

Yet the report focuses on economics, harking back to the debate that raged for a decade about a minimum wage. Doom- and-gloom scenarios were painted even up to its introduction in May last year at HK$28 an hour. But the company closures and job losses never came to pass and our city is better off for the law. While the financial well-being of Hong Kong obviously has to be considered in detail where working hours are involved, so, too, do the health and social implications.

That is not to make light of the concerns of employers. Seven of the biggest business chambers have warned that such a law would be detrimental to Hong Kong's economic growth. The department's report suggests that the law, coupled with the minimum wage, would weaken the ability of companies to ride out difficult times. Consensus among employers, workers and interest groups has to be the basis of decisions.

Hong Kong is praised in global studies as having one of the world's most productive workforces. Employees are lauded for their professionalism, dedication and quality of work. But research also shows that they are also largely unhappy with their lot, experiencing stress and ill health and having inadequate time for family, friends and recreation. For the sake of continued high productivity and our city's well-being, we need standard working hours. Discussion has to be thorough and fair to assure the best possible outcome for all involved.