Legislation on working hours a thorny issue at the best of times
The proposed law in Hong Kong has left no one satisfied, yet there is a need for regulation and that means compromise is crucial
Introducing a statutory cap on working hours has proved more difficult than expected. Instead of an all-encompassing law, a committee has proposed that only employers of “low-income, grass-roots” workers should be required to spell out working hours and overtime pay in contracts. How many and exactly what kind of workers are to be covered remains unclear, let alone a timetable for enforcement. Those who pinned their hopes on the outgoing government for better protection on working hours are understandably disappointed.
It is ironic that the proposal was released on the eve of the Lunar New Year holiday, a rare occasion for workers to clock off earlier than usual. Wrapping up nearly four years of study, the Standard Working Hours Committee chief Dr Leong Che-hung conceded that the outcome would not satisfy all parties concerned. He blamed the labour side for boycotting the committee’s work, saying their absence had prevented the group from properly defining the target workers.
Heavily watered down as it is, the proposal is still better than nothing. Currently, low-skill workers employed without a contract is not uncommon. The proposed law requiring bosses of low-income workers to map out mutually acceptable working hours and overtime pay in written contracts is therefore a step forward. But to the labour side, the so-called contractual working hours does not go far enough. Indeed, the bargaining power of low-income workers is so limited that they may have to accept whatever terms are imposed by bosses. Fears that the law will legitimise long working hours are therefore not unfounded.
Regulating working hours in a free economy such as Hong Kong was bound to be a challenge. Not only is it seen by some as socialist and inflexible, it raises a host of practical issues, such as the nature of different professions and the impact on business costs. The issue is even more complicated than introducing a minimum wage, in that it will affect both low- and high-income earners. This is not helped when the labour side pulls out in protest midway through the formulation process because employers are not ready to compromise.
At stake is not just the work-life balance of individual workers. Overly long working hours undermine productivity and add to social costs, which in turn weaken economic competitiveness and create social problems. The government should work with businesses to put in place acceptable arrangements and review the implementation from time to time. If the problem prevails, more effective measures should be considered.