Donald Tsang
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Two cheers for a five-day working week

Donald Tsang
Chris Yeung

Much has been said about the merits of a five-day working week. Although Hong Kong proclaims itself Asia's world city, it is a shameful fact of life that a sizeable proportion of the working population still works more than five days a week - unlike in other developed economies.

With moves to introduce a five-day week for tens of thousands of civil servants, many people think the government has at long last become attuned to the knowledge-based economy.

Political parties can hardly dispute the development, as it falls in line with the principle of striking a better work-life balance.

The plan was approved by the Executive Council this month. Big businesses such as banks have followed suit.

At first glance, it seems like a rare case of 'government leads, market follows', although the opposite is true. Many companies adopted a five-day week long ago.

Under the first stage of a three-phase scheme that will be completed in a year, about 73,000 civil servants will switch to a five-day week from July 1.

Given that a five-day working week has been widely adopted elsewhere, including on the mainland, its belated, and partial, introduction in the civil service should not be seen as controversial. The political and economic sea changes in the past two years set the tone for the announcement.

If details of the first phase of the switch caused disquiet when they were announced last week, that was because of fears the arrangement would adversely affect services.

Government services such as the licensing of drivers and vehicles, Inland Revenue counter services, Home Affairs Department office inquiries, and Trade and Industry Department licence applications will not be provided on Saturdays from July.

Officials claim these services are not in great demand on Saturdays, but have not provided the figures to prove it.

The withdrawal of such services on Saturdays has drawn harsh comment from some Chinese-language newspapers. A Ming Pao editorial said the bottom line was that the switch must not benefit civil servants at the expense of the public. Although the policy was good in principle, the details were crucial.

'Isn't it going against the principle of 'people-based governance' Mr Donald Tsang [Yam-kuen] has promoted?' the Hong Kong Economic Times asked, then added: 'The government must not turn a good policy into a bad thing. If it brings inconvenience to people, the popularity of government will be adversely affected.'

The public's concern about government services under a five-day week touches on fundamental questions about the objectives, principles and socio-economic implications of the arrangement - questions that remain unanswered since the chief executive gave the go-ahead in January.

Mr Tsang was said to have surprised the civil service, including some policy secretaries, when he announced the plan at a Legislative Council question-and-answer session.

A well-placed source says Mr Tsang expressed reservations about a five-day working week when the issue was discussed during Tung Chee-hwa's administration.

Despite the pledge of a customer-oriented government 'doing more with less', cutting back services on Saturdays will no doubt cause the public some inconvenience. Officials have yet to produce convincing proof that those who need direct services on Saturdays can be served on weekdays, or have other alternatives such as internet services and drop-in boxes.

There are issues beyond the delivery of government services. With more large firms switching to a five-day week, the ability of small- and medium-sized companies which do not make the switch to attract people to work for them may diminish. If so, there will be implications for the whole business environment.

This is but one of several important issues related to the new arrangement that have seemingly not been vigorously examined by the government.