Boycott of standard hours talks in Hong Kong will hurt low-income groups

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 12:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 12:18am

Since the introduction of the statutory minimum wage in 2011, how much better has the life of the poor been made?

Probably not much, because of inflation and the ever-rising cost of living. After all, the minimum wage is only a form of basic protection and is not intended to make a significant difference to lives. Most grassroots families in Hong Kong manage only to make ends meet. Low wages (albeit now higher), coupled with long working hours and poor working conditions, amount to a poor work-life balance.

Despite being well-intentioned, the second-stage consultation on working hours proved to be ill-fated due to the continued boycott by labour representatives.

What is fortunate, though, is that some broad-brush consensus has been reached, including on the use of laws to regulate working hours and that across-the-board laws would be inappropriate because of different job natures.

It is generally agreed that there should be a cap on working hours at 44 per week and workers should be paid 1.5 times their usual overtime rate.

The main bone of contention is that union representatives see the idea of contractual working hours as ineffectual.

They fear that if it is only a term stipulated in agreements signed by employers and staff, workers with weak bargaining power may not be guaranteed overtime pay. Such concerns are legitimate and should be addressed, or the whole legislation would amount to nothing more than an empty gesture.

An increased wage bill would inevitably have financial implications for businesses. Employers not wishing to fork out overtime pay will have to cut costs, resulting in downsizing, reduced staff benefits or job losses. It is, however, worth recalling that such concerns were no less strong when the minimum wage was introduced. Five years in, businesses have fared well and our minimum wage system has become more robust.

Other concerns such as Hong Kong’s economy being subject to downside risks and the detrimental effects on the city’s competitiveness and corporate flexibility are just peripheral.

It should be realised that the aim of having standard working hours is primarily to compensate workers for overtime clocked. Goals of reduced working hours and better work-life balance are still remote. If it is a better work-life balance that we aspire to give our workers, perhaps union representatives should think twice about their boycott, for what they are doing will only hurt the welfare of low-income groups.

Borromeo Li Ka-kit, Happy Valley