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Scramble, and struggle, on 5-day working

While universities and banks seriously consider the concept, small business operators are unlikely to follow suit

Private enterprise is scrambling - and in some cases battling - to follow the government's lead in introducing a five-day week.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has announced a shift to a five-day week for the civil service by July, but to appease the business community, pledged that legislation forcing the private sector to follow would not be introduced. However, it seems the sudden policy shift has spurred other sectors into action.

The Heads of Universities Committee says it is well advanced in investigating how universities can introduce the five-day week for staff.

A University of Hong Kong spokesman said the committee has guidelines for universities to follow as they move towards cutting back the extra half day's work. While it wants individual universities to decide whether a five-day week is suitable, most universities said they would only move if all agreed they would benefit.

Both the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Chinese University said they had plans in place for a five-day week but said it would only be introduced upon a consensus being reached in the sector.

At least two banks - HSBC and Hang Seng - are to introduce a five-day week after the Hong Kong Association of Banks' decision last week to move to a five-day clearing week in September.

Executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Association James Lu Shien-hwai said many in the industry were looking seriously at the proposal. 'But for years, many people not directly involved in front-of-house operations have been working a five-day week,' he said.

Mr Lu said those who continued to work a half day could be compensated with a short working day the following week. 'But hotels have been increasingly giving staff two full days off anyway.'

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Jockey Club said the option of a five-day week had been investigated. But cutting working hours was particularly problematic for the gaming industry, with horse races at weekends as well as in midweek.

Eddy Lee Sau-hang, president of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Association, was worried that a five-day week for the civil service and banks would mount pressure on small and medium-sized firms to follow.

'Some small businesses do not have the means to switch to a five-day week. Their staff may air their grievances to the employer or even consider changing jobs eventually,' he said after yesterday's City Forum.

He was also concerned that working hours in society as a whole would shorten and affect services available to the public, especially Hongkongers working on the mainland on weekdays.

Deputy Secretary for the Civil Service So Kam-shing said there was no plan to impose legislation for a five-day week for the private sector. He said the government would not impose the change across departments regardless of the nature of services, adding that the situation would be reviewed after implementation.