Unionists protest outside where the Standard Working Hours Committee was meeting. Photo: Sam Tsang

High time for a law on standard working hours

Jimmy Cheung

If the introduction of a minimum-wage law was a tough battle, the crusade for standard working hours may be more daunting. During the first meeting of an advisory committee appointed by the government, employer and worker representatives are said to have been at odds on almost everything. Their only agreed on the need to consult the public and to meet every other month. Although the labour side wants to see the law enacted as soon as possible, the employers argue that "improvements" in working hours would be sufficient.

That both sides are poles apart is disappointing, but not surprising. Unlike the wage floor, which targets the lowest income group, a statutory cap on working hours covers employees of all ranks and professions. The impact is, understandably, far more wide-ranging and requires careful consideration. This is why the task has been entrusted to a committee made up of academics as well as representatives from both sides.

There have been suggestions the committee may take three years just to decide whether legislation will be needed. Compared with the 13 years it took for the minimum-wage law to come to fruition, such a timetable may seem reasonable. But for those who are eager to see quick results it may look like foot-dragging. After all, the issue was put on the agenda by the former chief executive as early as 2010. The Labour Department took it forward with a hefty 344-page report, outlining overseas experience and the measure's possible financial impact - additional labour costs of up HK$55 billion a year.

Bosses are expected to use the same arguments adopted in opposing the wage floor - massive lay-offs, reduced competitiveness and companies going under. But if the past two years are any reference, these doom-and-gloom scenarios have not materialised. On the other hand, the benefits of a good work-life balance have been well recognised - less illness, enhanced productivity and better public health.

Forging a consensus on a new law takes time. With better effort from all sides, an early agreement could be reached.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Time for a law on working hours