My Take

HK heading for unwanted options on working hours and retirement

Bureaucratic compromise could lead to choices being offered that please no one, worker or boss

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 3:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 2:59pm

It does not augur well for the government. Two of its big initiatives are facing boycotts as the new year starts. Its much advertised consultation on retirement protection now looks DOD – dead on delivery. Even without the boycott by a group of scholars and activists, officials seem committed to making the two retirement protection options on offer as unattractive and unviable as possible.

READ MORE: Hong Kong groups plan boycott of retirement consultation

Now, key unionist members on the Standard Working Hours Committee have walked out, citing the intransigence of those who speak for bosses on the committee.

The walkout seems perfectly justified. Unionists want laws making it mandatory for bosses to pay their staff overtime after working beyond a certain number of hours a day. That seems to be what most people mean by standard working hours.

One proposal is for a working week of between 40 and 44 hours, with workers paid 1.5 times their usual wage rate for overtime.

This is reasonable. But representatives for employers prefer the so-called contract approach.

This means any new law should only force bosses to state in their staff’s employment contracts the number of hours they should work and how they should be compensated if they work beyond those hours.

In other words, workers may well end up signing contracts that say they won’t be paid overtime or only paid at the same rate as they are for regular working hours.

Such a law would defeat the whole purpose of standard working hours. Worse, it would legitimise the practice of not paying or underpaying employees for working overtime.

READ MORE: Employees’ boycott would make report on Hong Kong standard working hours ‘flawed’, says committee chairman

The gulf separating the two sides is too great for the committee chairman, the beleaguered Dr Leong Che-hung, to bridge.

Leong is still licking his wounds from his time as chairman of the University of Hong Kong council mired in the furore over the failed appointment of a pro-democracy law professor to a top post.

The committee is expected to present recommendations to the government in the next three months, and officials have offered to extend its term to finish the job.

What is clear is that the government will have to take sides to make it work. But given the pro-business and non-committal tendencies of our bureaucrats, they will likely end up presenting options that please no one – and call it compromise.