Compromise on Hong Kong working hours finally in sight as unionists propose 44-hour work week

Group submits report to chief executive amid split within Standard Working Hours Committee

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 November, 2016, 4:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 10:10am

Hong Kong’s drawn out and often contentious efforts to standardise working hours appear to be finally bearing fruit, with labour unionists meeting the city’s leader on Wednesday to offer a compromise at 44 hours a week.

The government responded with Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung extending this month’s deadline for the Standard Working Hours Committee to submit its final recommendations, giving it two more months to study the labour sector’s consultation report.

“The chief executive did not tell us if he would be able to standardise working hours within his term. But the labour sector will continue the fight,” Federation of Trade Unions chairman Stanley Ng Chau-pei said after the 45-minute meeting, although he described Leung Chun-ying’s response as “positive”.

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Leung is under pressure to settle the matter within this term, as he had promised to follow up on the matter in his election manifesto, and unionists are hoping his possible bid for a second term next March will spur him to get it done.

In calling for a standardised 44 hours a week on Wednesday, the labour representatives also conceded the goal could be reached “in phases”. They have long demanded legislation to make it 40-44 hours, and for employers to pay staff an additional amount 1.5 times their regular wages for every extra hour.

To persuade a reluctant business sector to accept such legislation, the unionists now propose a duration above 44 hours initially to offer at least some security to workers. The idea is to amend legislation to achieve the 44-hour level eventually over a period of time that is open to discussion.

They are now also willing to accept some jobs being exempted, but have yet to identify them, saying it warrants further discussion.

“The chief executive said he will look into the report and he hoped the Standard Working Hours Committee will also study the report,” Ng said.

Asked if he would still support Leung for a second term in office if he failed to deliver the goods in time, Ng would only say “no candidate can ignore” the matter.

The report was submitted by incumbent and former labour sector lawmakers as well as union representatives who have been boycotting the committee over the past year, complaining about a “lack of sincerity” among employers’ representatives.

According to unionist Chau Siu-chung, Leung promised to submit the report to the Executive Council for discussion. Chau suggested the level be set at 48 hours initially to “minimise” an outcry from the business sector.

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On the employers’ side, Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, was blunt.

“Under the current economic situation, standardising working hours to 44 a week is just unrealistic,” he said. “The business sector is against such legislation as we believe there should not be such a constraint in a free economy.”

Employers would simply avoid asking their staff to work long hours, meaning they would be making less money, he added.

According to official data, the median weekly working hours for Hong Kong men was 45.7 in mid-2015. It was 44.3 for women.

Chinese restaurant staff work the longest: they clock in at 60 hours, followed by security guards with 57.2.