Employers are resisting moves to impose mandatory paternity leave for staff, saying it would be a heavy blow at a time when the full impact of the year-old minimum wage is still kicking in and that cheap domestic staff and willing grandparents rendered it unnecessary.
They expressed their concerns at a meeting of the Labour Advisory Board at which employee representatives insisted they should have the same rights as civil servants.
A Civil Service Bureau consultation paper released in November recommended up to five days of paternity leave, while a government consultation is under way to consider making it a statutory requirement for all employers.
Yesterday marked the first time the board had discussed the issue. Employer representative Ho Sai-chu said the government should encourage companies to give paternity leave but leave the decision up to them.
'The minimum wage has only been implemented for a year. Now we're talking about a review, and also the legislation of standard working hours,' said Ho, of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce.
'If we're going to make paternity leave statutory too, I am not sure whether companies and Hong Kong's economy can handle it.'
He added that Hong Kong was different from other places. 'It's easy and inexpensive to hire domestic workers and many grandparents are willing to help take care of the babies and the mothers. We should consider the culture of this city.'
Employee representative Ray Lee Tak-ming said legislation was needed to protect lower-tier employees who now had very few holidays. 'If they have to take five days off from their annual leave [as paternity leave], they won't be able to take any other holidays for the rest of the year,' he said.
A government study released last month indicated that such leave would cost private employers HK$140 million to HK$240 million more each year, just 0.02 per cent to 0.04 per cent of their total wage bill.
Ho said although the total costs would not rise much it would still be tough for small and medium enterprises, which comprise more than 90 per cent of the commercial sector.
'They don't have a lot of staff. If an employee took the leave, it would be difficult to find someone to replace him,' he said. 'It's not only about money.'
Another employer representative, Stanley Lau Chin-ho, said letting companies decide whether to offer paternity leave could encourage competition and could be better than legislation. 'Some companies might not be able to handle the impact of the new labour policies. They might cut staff or even close down. That would also have a great impact on employees,' he said.
Lau, also the deputy chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, thought paternity leave should be deducted from the employees' annual leave, but acknowledged that it would be difficult to persuade employees to accept this.
In Macau, employees are entitled to two days of paternity leave, while in the Philippines, expecting or new fathers can take up to seven days off.
The number of years since Norway became the first nation to introduce paternity leave