Weak law on standard working hours is going nowhere fast

Outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying is trying to ram through a draft proposal that pleases no one, least of all labour unions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 12:39am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 12:39am

When it comes to honouring policy commitments, the Hong Kong government’s record is debatable. There are examples where high-sounding promises have become half-hearted or heavily watered down measures. The proposals by the outgoing administration on standard working hours is a case in point. Instead of introducing a law that standardises working hours at 40-44 a week for everyone, the government wants employers to spell out working hours and overtime compensation in contracts only for those who earn HK$11,000 a month or less. While officials believe some 500,000 workers would benefit from the arrangement, it also means that over 85 per cent of the city’s workforce would be left out.

With just two weeks left in his term, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying must be keen to tick off a few more items on his to-do list. Whether the latest decision can be considered as mission accomplished is debatable, though. The Executive Council only laid down the framework, with the details to be thrashed out by the incoming government. Subject to approval by the legislature, the arrangement will not come into effect until late 2020.

Working hours plan cheats ordinary people, Hong Kong unionist says, but businesses warn of lay-offs

Labour unionists are understandably up in arms, accusing Leung of twisting the concept of standard working hours. They argue that the coverage is not only too narrow, it effectively enables unscrupulous bosses to legitimise long working hours in contracts, as low-income workers do not have much bargaining power. Meanwhile, the business sector says rising wage costs will result in massive layoffs.

The scaremongering tactics were used when the statutory minimum wage was introduced. But the doomsday scenario never happened. That said, standard working hours is more complicated in that it should cover not just low-wage earners. That explains why the government has opted for a less sweeping approach.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung King-chung is right to say that this is just a starting point. The law could be reviewed two years after implementation, he said. But it remains unclear how it will be handled by the new government. Indeed, the law may not even win enough support in the legislature.

That it is taking almost 10 years for such a law to be put in place owes much to opposing vested interests and an increasingly fragmented legislature. The task ahead for incoming chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, is even more challenging. She needs stronger political clout to overcome the obstacles and prove that her government can deliver on this long-standing issue.