Legislating standard working hours will not result in a rise in business costs in the long run as companies will look for ways to rearrange work flow in a more efficient manner, an expert with a United Nations labour agency has said.
The remarks by the International Labour Organisation's senior research officer Jon Messenger came as the Hong Kong government planned to set up a task force to look into the issue this month following a pledge Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made in his policy address in January.
But the government has so far made no commitment to whether such a labour law would actually be introduced.
"In general, companies will respond by reducing the working hours. And when working hours are reduced, there will be an impact on productivity," Messenger said, speaking from the organisation's Geneva headquarters.
"Normally, labour costs will be higher. But in the long run, workers will have stronger motivation to finish their work within the limited time."
The organisation is the only UN agency with government, employer and worker representatives, and has 185 member states including China and the United States. It is responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards.
Messenger said if standard working hours were introduced in Hong Kong, there will inevitably be an increase in costs in the short run.
"But the question is how much? And companies will respond by restructuring work flow. In the long run, it will be fine," he said.
The ILO promotes a standard work week of 40 hours, and bosses have to pay at least 25 per cent more for each extra hour an employee works.
Messenger said people in most countries work between 40 and 48 hours in a standard work week. "The overtime pay is usually 50 per cent more [in addition to the usual rate], like in the US. The US sets the standard at 40 hours a week," he said.
According to the "Working Conditions Laws Report" that the ILO released in 2010, 80 per cent of the 106 countries that the organisation studied had standardised working hours.
The report said 41 per cent of countries, including South Korea and Japan, had a 40-hour week, while 22 per cent of countries, such as Malaysia and Argentina, limited it to 48 hours.
As for overtime pay, 71 per cent of the countries offered at least 25 per cent on top of the standard pay; 44 per cent of countries put it at 50 per cent more; and 10 per cent of countries mandated 75 to 100 per cent more.
Asked whether the Hong Kong government should legislate standard working hours soon, Messenger said: "I will not tell the Hong Kong government what it should or should not do. But normal working hours with the provision of responsible overtime pay is in line with the ILO standard."