Work limits must come with elbow room

Bosses and workers agree on one thing when it comes to proposals on overtime pay: flexibility

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 January, 2014, 4:29am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 January, 2014, 5:19am

Both employers and employees believe there should be no strict time limits on proposed new regulations for limiting the number of hours people can work before being paid overtime.

But otherwise the two parties remain polarised on the issue of standard working hours. Bosses oppose any legislation for fear it may hurt competitiveness, while unions believe it would improve working conditions, according to a government adviser speaking at the start of a public consultation on the plan.

"There is a clear message today. Both [employers and employees] want flexibility in enforcing standard working hours, no matter whether these are set at 40, 44 or 46 hours [a week]," Dr Leong Che-hung, chairman of the standard working hours committee, said after meeting representatives from the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, Chinese Manufacturers' Association and Hong Kong and Kowloon Trades Union Council yesterday.

Leong was concerned that both parties were confused about the definitions of standard and maximum working hours.

According to the Labour Department, standard working hours refer to the normal number of hours that an employee should work on a regular basis, beyond which overtime pay is required.

In comparison, maximum working hours serve to cap the number of hours that an employee should work. Observations overseas show regimes that adopt such a cap may encourage less overtime among employees.

Lee Kwok-keung, chairman of the union council, suggested setting standard working hours at 44 hours per week and overtime pay at a rate of 1.5 times the normal amount.

"About 350,000 workers [who work long hours] do not get overtime pay," he said. "They make up about half of all who work overtime. Apart from pay, workers need reasonable time to rest. The employers should not abuse labour rights to maintain their competitiveness."

Stanley Lau Chin-ho, an employer representative and committee member, said standard working hours were not a magic wand. "You just can't get both overtime pay and leisure at the same time," he said.

Local employees worked an average of 45 hours a week, government statistics in 2012 showed. The median for non-professional occupations was higher, at 49 hours.