The government will pay an additional HK$700 million to its contractors so that low-paid workers will receive paid rest days after the minimum wage takes effect next month.
But it has drawn the line at paying for their meal breaks - prompting union criticism that it is half-hearted and setting 'a very bad example'.
Just over half the about 50,000 workers - mostly cleaners and security guards - whose jobs the government has outsourced to private contractors are paid less than HK$28 an hour, the new statutory minimum.
The government decision comes amid fears companies will not include meal breaks and rest days in salaries after the Minimum Wage Ordinance takes effect on May 1.
An official handling the matter said that as such payments were not specified in contracts between the government and outsourcing companies, the government 'after thorough consideration' had decided to pay the extra money. 'We will pay for the workers' rest days, which is four days a month,' the official said. 'But we do not think we should pay extra money for the meal breaks.'
He said the issue should be settled in employment contracts signed by contractors and workers.
Unionist legislator Wong Kwok-hing said he was disappointed. 'Yes, the laws fail to say whether lunch breaks and rest days should be paid,' he said. 'But the government should take the lead and be a role model. The government has set a very bad example that companies will follow.'
Another unionist lawmaker, Lee Cheuk-yan, said the government was doing things half-heartedly. 'Why can't it cover the meal breaks as well? Like many other issues, the government has only solved half of the problem and left other issues behind.'
A restaurant chain meanwhile rejected union criticism that it forced 1,000 workers in its 16 cha chaan teng to sign a contract with reduced benefits yesterday. 'We have about 5,000 workers whose remuneration packages are with paid rest days and no bonus payment at the end of the year. The rest are guaranteed a year-end bonus but no paid rest days,' Tsui Wah Restaurant Group general manager Jessica Li Tsau-ha said.
'Given the new minimum wage, we want to standardise the contracts. But above all, we have not forced anyone to sign the new contracts,' Li said, adding that meal breaks would be paid in the new contracts.
She said the new contracts would add about 7 per cent to the firm's monthly payroll of more than HK$10 million. 'We have no intention of making use of the minimum wage to exploit workers - on the contrary, we are offering our workers more than they used to get.'
A union has also warned the city's 2,500 travel companies that it would be against the law to force their agents to become self-employed - as some have said they may have to do to save money.
The Travel Industry (Outbound) Tour Escort and Tour Guide Union urged tour agents to lodge a complaint with it and the government if they find themselves in this position.