Caution needed on imposing standard working hours

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 September, 2015, 1:36am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 September, 2015, 1:36am

Imposing standard working hours in Hong Kong has always been known to be a challenge, not only because of the wide range of complex issues involved. As reflected in the latest government estimates, the potential impact on the economy is sweeping. The panel tasked to introduce such a law must proceed with care and try to minimise the adverse consequences on the business environment.

Instead of imposing a set of common working hours across the board, the Standing Working Hours Committee earlier recommended a law that only requires employers to state clearly in a written contract the basic working hours, overtime arrangements and compensation. The proposal can enhance labour protection while providing flexibility.

It is good to learn that the committee is exploring further measures to protect low-income earners who may have less bargaining power over contractual terms. According to analyses based on different income levels, working hours and compensation methods, salaries for 140,000 to 770,000 workers may rise 0.7 per cent to 9.5 per cent as a result of having overtime compensation. But the total payroll for employers will swell between HK$103 million and HK$10.3 billion a year.

That the legislation will drive up business costs is to be expected. While the extra wage bill may look worrying to bosses, unionists say it merely underlines the fact that hundreds of thousands of workers have been working unreasonably long hours without due compensation.

The debate is similar to the one over the minimum wage. It is true that the doom-and-gloom scenario predicted by some employers' representatives did not materialise following the introduction of the statutory wage floor. But the rising costs were transferred to customers.

With a quarter of the workforce clocking 51 hours or more a week, there is certainly much room for improvement. But the prevailing economic situation does little to ease the concerns of businesses. Given its potential impact on businesses and individuals, the government must tackle the issue with caution.