A special committee to look at the possibility of legislation on standard working hours was set up yesterday, but its members face a tough task.
Former Executive Council member Dr Leong Che-hung was appointed chair of the committee for three years.
Its 23 other members are from the labour and business sectors, government, academia and the community.
Labour minister Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said the committee was tasked with the job of promoting the standard working hours issue and advising the administration on whether a statutory regime was needed.
Committee member Lee Tak-ming, who is also general secretary of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Trades Union Council, is bracing for an uphill battle.
"It's going to be very tough pushing for this law, given the opposition from the business sector representatives on the committee. This law will have a much greater impact on business than the minimum wage law," he said.
Lee added that it was uncertain whether the committee would reach a consensus within three years. "But even if it doesn't happen, at least there will be a public debate on this matter. Hongkongers will know more about it," he said.
Leong, a former Hospital Authority chairman, made no guarantee of an agreement being reached in his three-year term, but hoped the committee would be able to steer the government in the right direction on the issue. It is expected to submit a report to the government at the end of that period, but there is no time limit on the committee's work.
Another member, Chau Siu-chung, who is treasurer of the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Labour Unions, is also expecting a battle with the business representatives he believes will strongly oppose legislating standard working hours. Of the 23 members, seven are employer and business representatives.
Chau said he would propose a standard working week of 44 hours, with overtime pay of 11/2 times normal wage rates.
Seven of the city's biggest business chambers sent a joint letter to the government in November, saying legislation on standard working hours would hurt the commercial environment. While they did not explicitly state any opposition to such a law, the chambers did warn in the letter that it would be detrimental to economic growth.
The letter said: "The far-reaching implications of regulating standard working hours have the potential to rock the fundamentals which have underlined Hong Kong's success."
Leong said yesterday: "Many Hongkongers work overtime. As a doctor, I often ponder the health effects of this." But he said he also feared that reduced hours might hurt the economy. The committee's first meeting is to be held in two to three weeks.