International experience has shown that standard working hours can boost productivity and even create jobs, overseas experts said amid debate about their introduction in Hong Kong.
Working shorter hours would mean staff had a better work-life balance and more job satisfaction, said Jon Messenger, senior research officer with the International Labour Organisation. But businesses could see costs rise in the short term, he added.
"This is the rule. Working time reduction, generally speaking, leads to productivity increases," he said while in town for a seminar on the issue yesterday.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying included a standard working hours law in his manifesto in 2012, but the issue is now subject to a three-year study by a government committee, which is expected to release a proposal for consultation next year. Business chambers are fiercely against it.
But Messenger said that, in Germany and the Netherlands, businesses came out on top.
"It ended up that productivity increased faster than the wages … the businesses actually ended up being better off, in the medium term, than before the reduction [in hours]," he said.
The ILO reported in 2010 that 80 per cent of the 106 countries it studied had working hours limits. The United Nations agency promotes a standard 40-hour working week, with employers paying at least 25 per cent more for hours worked beyond the limit.
Messenger said standard hours could also create job opportunities, as employers would need more staff to complete the same amount of work.
"In the case of Hong Kong, you've got such low unemployment. The only way to get employment to increase is really to bring in people who are outside the labour force," he said.
Professionals such as doctors, who are paid by the month, not the hour, could be compensated with time off instead, he added.
Kim Tae-hyun, head of research at the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, said South Korea reduced the standard working week from 48 to 44 hours in 1988, then to 40 hours in 2003.
There has been "no problem of bankruptcy" and productivity has been going up, he said.
The government estimated in 2012 that standard hours would cost employers HK$55.2 billion a year more in wages.