More than 1,000 off-duty firemen yesterday went ahead with their planned protest for shorter working hours after yesterday's tenement fire in Mong Kok, which claimed nine lives.
The rally would have attracted 200 more firemen if they had not had to work overtime to fight the fire, an organiser said.
'It was unfortunate, what happened in Mong Kok this morning. I hope the government and the public could see the fire as an alarm because the public's safety can never be compromised,' said Tse Sau-lung, vice-chairman of the Fire Services Department Staffs General Association.
The firefighters were demonstrating for a 48-hour working week, in line with the other uniformed services, instead of the current 54 hours, reduced from 60 hours 21 years ago.
'We knew the timing was delicate but decided to go ahead with the protest, since it had been planned a month ago, though we thought it must be kept low-profile,' Tse said.
The protesters observed a minute's silence at 11am for the nine who died, before beginning their march from Wan Chai's Southorn Playground to the new government headquarters in Admiralty.
The union said most members of Hong Kong's disciplined forces now worked 48 or even 44 hours a week.
'We want to receive the same treatment as other disciplined forces, and have voiced our concerns. But the government has never given us an answer,' Tse said.
He said a government official had told them their demand could be met on the condition that fewer firefighters would be on duty during the small hours, so that costs would not have to be raised. 'But we flatly refused to accept that proposal because the public's safety would be compromised as a result - as seen in this morning's tragedy,' he said. 'If fewer firemen had been at work, I'm sure the fire would have lasted longer.'
Firefighters work on a shift system of 24 hours on, 48 hours off. Working hours include training sessions and standby duty at fire stations.
A Legislative Council paper reports that police work 48 hours a week, correctional services officers work 49 hours, customs officers 51, and immigration officers 44.
The paper said that if firefighters' hours were cut to 48, the department would need to hire 690 more officers, costing an extra HK$270 million.
Firefighters held a similar small-scale protest last year, and had been warning for two months that they would stage another.
A spokesman for the Fire Services Department said it understood the protesters' concerns, and in principle supported their actions. He said they would keep in contact with the union and would study the feasibility of reducing working hours.