Compromise key to reaching consensus on standard working hours

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is the playing the role of honest broker in negotiations between unions and employers; let’s hope he succeeds

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 1:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 1:04am

The countless hours of negotiation that have been spent on the question of introducing standard working hours are testament to a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between labour and employers’ representatives. An eventual boycott on the talks by unionists who claimed a “lack of sincerity” among employers didn’t help. It prompted the observation that if the two sides could forge a consensus not so long ago on the deeply contentious issue of a minimum wage then, surely, outstanding issues like working hours could be resolved through partnership and compromise.

That may yet prove true sooner than anyone expected, as a result of a flexible compromise now proposed to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying by unionists. In the hope that with more time it can prove a breakthrough, the government has responded by extending this month’s deadline for the Standard Working Hours Committee to make its final recommendations by two months.

Labour representatives have long demanded a 40 to 44 hour working week, with employers to pay time and a half, or 1.5 times regular wages, for extra hours. The closest the committee has come to such an across-the-board approach is the less sweeping proposal of allowing bosses to spell out working hours in employment contracts. Now the unions have proposed the goal of a 44-hour working week to be reached in phases, with one labour representative suggesting an initial level of 48 hours.

Panel head hopes for consensus on standard working hours as committee studies 44-hour plan by unionists

Employers cannot be expected to lightly set aside long-standing and strongly held concerns about cost competitiveness and market freedom. Indeed, Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, has dismissed a 44-hour standard as economically unrealistic and a constraint on Hong Kong’s much-vaunted free economy.

In extending the committee’s deadline, the government is upholding the time-honoured model of tripartite dialogue involving employers and unions with the government as mediator. That is the best forum for debating the unions’ offer and seeking a degree of consensus. It is regrettable there has still been no progress towards it. Hong Kong’s success may have been built on hard work. But that success raises expectations of a better work-life balance. Leung is to be commended for a prompt, positive response to the unions’ initiative. Committee chairman Dr Leong Che-hung has expressed the hope of consensus in some areas by its meeting next month. We trust Leung follows it up actively to help bring the two sides towards agreement that would be in the best interests of the city.