Why are unionists unhappy over CY Leung’s overtime plan for low-paid workers?

On Tuesday, Exco passed a proposal to force employers to sign contracts with low-income employees instead of standardising working hours

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 3:36pm

Outrage erupted on Tuesday when the government floated a plan mandating that bosses pay workers overtime wages at rates no less than their regular salaries if they made HK$11,000 or less a month. The plan also requires bosses to put required working hours and compensation in contracts.

This proposal for regulating working hours did not appeal to workers, though employers mostly found it acceptable. Unionists complained that ordinary workers were being “cheated” as they felt the plan fell short of what Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had pledged in his election manifesto.

Here are the key points of the controversy.

1. What did unionists ask for?

For years, unions have demanded a standard working week of 40 to 44 hours and an overtime rate of 1.5 times regular wages.

2. What did the chief executive offer?

Leung’s cabinet, the Executive Council, on Tuesday passed a proposal to make it mandatory for bosses to pay workers overtime wages at rates no less than their regular salaries only if they make HK$11,000 or less a month.

That would cost employers HK$524 million a year and benefit an estimated 550,000 part-time and full-time workers – accounting for only about 14 per cent of the city’s workforce.

Written contracts would be required, and it would be left to both parties to thrash out an acceptable number of working hours. If employees put in extra time above the agreed level, bosses would have to offer overtime pay matching their regular wages.

3. How many jobs are there paying HK$11,000 a month or less?

According to the government’s December 2016 Wage and Payroll Report, there are six job categories with an average monthly wage below HK$11,000 for men and eight for women.

4. What are they?

While the categories vary by role and gender, the roles that generally fall under the threshold are security guards working on a three-shift basis, cleaners, general workers and bus boys in restaurants (not including dishwashers, who earn more than HK$12,000), and office assistants and messengers.

Most work between eight to 10 hours a day, upwards of 23 days a month. Given these numbers, they may work 46 hours a week, though some work more than 52 hours a week.

Some roles like general office clerks just miss out on the protection offered by this legislation; they earn about $11,650 a month over a 52-hour week.

5. What do unionists say about the offer?

Trade unions were up in arms on Tuesday, complaining of being cheated and calling Leung’s plan a major letdown.

“This whole proposal is meaningless and shameful,” veteran unionist Lee Cheuk-yan said. “It will not help people achieve better work-life balance, which should be the purpose of any discussion on standard working hours.”

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6. How does it compare with what Leung pledged in his election manifesto in 2012?

Leung pledged in 2012 to set up a committee to “examine issues relating to employees’ overtime work conditions and arrangements as well as [a] legislative proposal on standard working hours”.

7. What will happen next?

Leung wants a draft amendment bill ready by the second half of 2018, to be tabled at the Legislative Council, and implemented by the end of 2020 or early 2021. The time frame means Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor will have a hot potato on her hands when she takes over from Leung on July 1.

Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants & Related Trades, said the plan could lead to job losses.

“I can understand the need for normal workers to have standardised working hours as they crave more protection,” he said. “But the new framework could lead to more lay-offs as operating costs will increase.”