Dozens of off-duty ambulance staff descended on the Legislative Council complex yesterday, demanding an end to what they call "exploitation" and "discrimination" by their bosses.
Members of the Fire Services Department Ambulancemen's Union say lack of manpower means they are often forced to take meals late and split their one-hour lunch break into shorter rests. They also complain that junior staff have not been offered more money for taking on responsibilities once carried out only by senior paramedics.
The Fire Services Department yesterday "expressed its regret" over the union's action and "appealed to it to be restrained" and talk to management.
But union chairman Chan Shi-ki said the biggest obstacle to any solution had always been "the department's refusal to recognise the existing problems".
He said the fact that members of other disciplined services were granted a one-hour uninterrupted lunch break amounted to "discrimination against ambulancemen".
"We are only asking for a reasonable lunch hour arrangement," Chan said. "Why do the policemen or medical staff at emergency departments all have uninterrupted lunch hours but not us? It all comes down to the age-old manpower problem, which the department has refused to admit."
Paramedics say it is not uncommon for ambulance crews to work from 7.30am to 1.30pm before getting a meal break, with the one-hour rest often split into shorter spells.
Chan urged the government to increase the number of paramedics, taking into account several factors including the city's ageing population as well as the influx of tourists.
Assistant ambulance staff should be given extra payments if they perform duties such as injections, which had been carried out only by ambulance supervisors until 2005, he added.
In response to claims about meal times, the department's deputy director David Lai Man-hin said a policy was in place allowing paramedics an uninterrupted meal break of at least half an hour per shift.
"But it doesn't mean that they can only have a 30-minute meal break," Lai said.
He said the department would ask the Civil Service Bureau for more recruits, if needed, but "in the past five years, the increase in manpower of the ambulance [division] was about 16 per cent, compared to 2.5 per cent for the fire services ... it has improved the meal-break conditions of our ambulancemen.
"The management treats staff of all [divisions] on an equal basis and will strive to secure resources to fulfil requests as long as these requests are reasonable," he added. Lai did not reply to questions about whether the rally would hurt the department's image, but said "staff are dedicated to providing a good service".
The department has faced protests from firefighters and paramedics over working conditions in recent years.