Businesses dig in to fight work hours plan

Coalition of small and medium-sized firms says proposed law to standardise working hours will lead to higher costs and business closures

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 4:52am

Small and medium-sized businesses are resolutely opposed to legislation to standardise working hours, a coalition spanning 54 business sectors said yesterday.

Spokesmen from the Hong Kong Business Community Joint Conference said such legislation would increase small businesses' operating costs by 30 to 60 per cent, possibly leading to mass closures and higher inflation without improving employees' working conditions.

Danny Lau Tat-pong, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association, said operating costs at his factory in Dongguan had risen by 60 per cent after a minimum wage and standardised hours were introduced in 2008.

"There will be no room for discussion if the government wants to make standard working hours a law," said Chan Kei-biu, one of the coalition representatives and convener of an action group against the legislation. "We believe the current relationship between employers and employees is harmonious. There is no need for change."

The Hong Kong Business Community Joint Conference includes business associations from sectors such as jewellery manufacturing, electronics, plastic manufacturing and textiles.

Catherine Yan Sui-han, convenor of the Environmental Services Contractors Alliance, said it is impossible for employees to work overtime without being paid in the cleaning sector because the contracts have settled daily working hours ranging from two hours to 16, and that workers are paid according to the time they spend on the job.

Yan worried that standard working hours could force contractors to hire two people to share a 16-hour shift in order to avoid paying the proposed 1.5 times a worker's base wage for each hour of over-time.

In such cases, she said, those who are shut out of longer shifts may have to take another job, which could involve transport costs, and that contractors will find hiring more workers difficult because few people are willing to work in the industry.

"Only those who are not willing to work hard will agree with standard working hours," said Yan.

Spokesmen representing metal merchants and security contractors said they would face similar problems.

Labour Party lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Legislative Council's manpower panel, said business associations should consider how Hong Kong can gain more wealth by developing a high-value-added economy and knowledge economy instead of protecting a "shameless way" of making money by exploiting workers.

He said most security guards are unable to take shorter shifts because private contractors only provide contracts requiring 12-hour working days, but agreed that cleaners, who can choose different working hours, may want to take second jobs if they were unable to work longer shifts.

"But we can't force all Hong Kong employees to work 12 hours because some people want to work 12 hours," said Lee, adding that the Commission on Poverty is studying the possibility of subsidising low-income families, which will help low-income workers when their working hours are reduced.

A three-year advisory committee was set up in early April to study the benefits and disadvantages of standardising working hours. The committee, which held its first meeting in May, will meet every two months, with the next date set for July 24. The coalition said it will meet the committee chairman in early July.