Hong Kong’s failure on overtime pay legislation shows it is moving backwards

Paul Yip says Hong Kong cannot consider itself a modern, fair and compassionate society if it does not protect and properly compensate low-income workers doing overtime

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 7:25pm

After more than five years of negotiations, the government has decided not to legislate on paying overtime to low-income workers, opting to set guidelines instead. This is yet another example of Hong Kong regressing rather than progressing.

How much time has been wasted and how much goodwill among stakeholders lost during the process? It is unfortunate that the compensation law cannot be established to provide better working conditions. Hong Kong has been known as the city with the highest percentage of those working more than 50 hours a week among 71 jurisdictions, according to a 2015 UBS survey.

Despite our impressive economic growth and gross domestic product being comparable to many high-income countries, our income gap has reached a historic high. The latest figure suggests that 19.9 per cent of the population is below the poverty line (earning less than half of the median income) and there has not been much improvement in quality of life. The government has to provide a subsidy to low-income earners, some of whom would earn enough if the overtime payment legislation were in force.

As of now, the government recommends guidelines for only 11 labour-intensive industries where the pay is relatively low. These guidelines carry no penalties, so it may be wishful thinking to expect employers to follow them. Some employers have consistently displayed negligence regarding the well-being of workers in certain sectors, such as among construction workers. They will not do anything unless greater punitive measures are put in place.

Is Hong Kong’s competitive work culture fuelling overtime norms?

As is, our occupation and safety records are, comparatively speaking, much worse than in many other developed countries with similar GDP. Even the statutory requirements are being ignored, so how we can hope for the non-payment of overtime work to improve?

When we refer to the recent survey on trends in salary adjustments for civil servants at different levels, who is seeing the greatest increase in income? An increase of 2.85 per cent is recommended for low-income earners, while 4.06 per cent is recommended for high-income earners.

Hong Kong can’t enjoy prosperity at the expense of these workers who cannot defend themselves

These pay trend survey results are based on information from the private sector. The fact is that low-income earners can hardly improve their quality of life, or even keep it from deteriorating.

The income disparity will only become greater due to the differential rate of adjustment; a 2.85 per cent increase for low-income earners with a monthly salary of HK$10,000 would be only HK$285, whereas a 4.06 per cent rise for an income of HK$100,000 would be HK$4,060. Yet the small amount of HK$285 nonetheless means a lot to low-income earners and the additional HK$4,060 for high-income earners would have a limited impact, as they already have a higher base salary.

The differential salary level rises somewhat reflect the bargaining power of these low-income earners, who work hard just to make their living. If these vulnerable members can’t protect themselves from exploitation, any reasonable government would do its fair share to rectify the wrong and employers should demonstrate social responsibility.

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The previous administration of Leung Chun-ying proposed to legislate for the overtime payment for workers who earned less than HK$11,000 a month. This would itself be a harsh and unfair compensation, at least according to international standards. Nevertheless, it is estimated that there would be 550,000 part-time and full-time workers that might benefit, amounting to about 17 per cent of the workforce.

Too much overtime has been shown to adversely affect physical and mental health. Sleep deprivation has become an acute problem among Hong Kong workers, and if the workers are not appropriately compensated for their time, this exacerbates the problem. This is about social justice and fair compensation for their work; they are not asking for a handout.

From time to time, there has been news about transport workers, in need of overtime work to increase their earnings, being involved in traffic accidents. If they earned enough, would they have to work that long?

I hope our present government can be more diligent in responding to the problems in our society. If the government has too much money to spend without knowing how to do it effectively, please spend it on the low-income earners to protect their rights and provide training to upgrade their skills. They are the ones who have worked hard and not been properly protected by present labour laws.

Unfortunately, some employers also take advantage of this situation, making employees work overtime without properly compensating them for their hard work, especially the workers with low incomes. These are the workers who have contributed to economic development and prosperity of Hong Kong.

What difference will an increase to the minimum wage mean for the lowest-paid in Hong Kong?

As a global metropolis, present labour law and practises do not measure up to the image of a caring society. Hong Kong can’t enjoy prosperity at the expense of these workers who cannot defend themselves.

We need not only innovation but passion to make Hong Kong strong again. The community is very polarised, seemingly unable to agree on anything. The business sector has to act more responsibly towards its workers and the government has to respond to needs of the community effectively. At present, it is disappointing to see our society stalling in this area, and perhaps regressing.

Paul Yip is chair professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong