WORKERS are under siege as employers change conditions and slash salaries, time-off and staff numbers to stay afloat in the economic crisis, unions say. Bosses are pushing staff to accept salary cuts and unpaid leave, to work longer hours without extra pay and to allow them to withhold wages. Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) secretary Wong Kwok said those who refused often faced increased pressure or were sacked. 'Before the economic crisis, we didn't hear about cutting wages. Now we hear it a lot,' Mr Wong said. Employers seeking to avoid paying severance compensation also push workers to resign by assigning them new tasks, odd shifts or finding fault unfairly, unions and workers said. One middle-aged hotel cleaner said: 'I'm starting to think it's better to just quit. I can't bear it much longer.' In other cases, workers are told to take sick leave only if they have a life-threatening illness or to stay on-call on their days off. The Empire Hotel in Wan Chai recently told its staff to bring friends and relatives there to spend money or face pay cuts. Meanwhile, employers are calling for workers to make short-term sacrifices to help firms weather the crisis. Unions said the demands were often unjustified as firms were only trying to maintain their profit levels. In the first half of this year, the Labour Department handled 13,590 claims involving unreasonable dismissals, changes in contracts and other labour disputes. The figure was up 28 per cent from the second half of last year when 10,564 claims were handled. Claims can involve more than one person. Mr Wong said his union had seen a significant increase in crisis calls. A typical call came from a woman who had rejected her employer's request to resign. She has since been accused of stealing and assigned new, strenuous tasks. 'She was near to tears when she called us for advice,' Mr Wong said. 'All we could tell her was just to bear with it or look for another job if she could. We also tell people how much money they will lose if they quit.' Union counsellors said workers could do little but maintain their job performance, because it was difficult to prove any wrongdoing on the part of the company. But they urged workers against signing anything with which they disagreed, such as statements admitting fault. 'If they are unjustly dismissed, they can take the case to the Labour Tribunal. In many cases, the judge rules in favour of workers when they realise the so-called violations are minor and the worker has performed well in previous years,' Mr Wong said. The Employers' Federation of Hong Kong failed to respond to questions. FACT FILE August 18: The Harbour Plaza Hotel in Hunghom, where President Jiang Zemin stays during his visits, asks its 500 workers to take up to two days' unpaid leave each month to help cut costs. August 12: Laid-off Star Paging workers complain they are ineligible for severance pay because they have worked for the firm for less than the minimum two years. August 6: The Empire Hotel in Wan Chai asks its 206 workers to sign new agreements holding them to earnings and cost-cutting targets. They face wage cuts of up to 20 per cent unless they encourage friends and relatives to spend money there. May 27: Hongkong Telecom asks staff to earn less but work more. About 3,000 workers are told to work 42.5 hours a week instead of 39, without extra pay. The company also plans to eliminate a $50-a-week allowance for working more than five days a week.