Labour rights still a work in progress

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 May, 2014, 4:21am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 May, 2014, 9:00am

Labour Day celebrates the achievement of workers' rights in many countries. It is also a reminder that in this part of the world, some basic rights remain a work in progress.

In Hong Kong, which introduced a minimum wage for the lowest-paid only three years ago today, the issue of standard working hours for everyone, placed on the agenda by the former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in 2010, has progressed no further than deliberation by an advisory group.

Meanwhile, a universal retirement income scheme advocated by some lawmakers is emerging as a big issue of the future in labour relations and social security policy.

Across the border, workers are escalating demands for rights long won elsewhere, as evidenced by strikes that have swept through the branded sports-shoe factories of Hong Kong-listed Taiwanese firm Yue Yuen in Guangdong and neighbouring Jiangxi .

The walkouts by thousands of workers began in Dongguan over the non-payment of social insurance, following the discovery of years of missing pension contributions that should have been administered by the local government.

Similar protests in recent months have hit multinationals like IBM and Wal-Mart.

They have been sparked by growing awareness among workers of abuse of their rights, thanks largely to the spread of online communications. Local authorities have long got away with lax application of social security laws to avoid driving away manufacturing operations.

But with the working-age population now in decline, employers are more inclined to retain workers, raising the importance of social security contributions and payments.

While all workers and their families in Hong Kong can celebrate today, it is also a reminder that some are more equal than others.

By law there are still two holiday schedules - one for office workers and another for those who are not. Everyone is entitled to 12 statutory holidays but many in white-collar jobs get five extra days, including Easter and Christmas, a legacy of the British colonial era.

A government that preaches the virtues of family life and exercise ought to promote a better work-life balance by overcoming resistance to abolition of this discriminatory hangover from an industrial economy.

Labour Day is known in some other places as eight-hour day, another reminder of its continuing relevance to the improvement of workers' rights in Hong Kong, among other places.