Give Hong Kong chief executive power to grant workers post-typhoon day off, lawmakers urge
Members from opposing political camps put aside differences at special meeting to grill officials on Mangkhut clean-up
Hong Kong’s two rival political camps put aside their differences on Thursday to lobby the government for a law empowering the city’s leader to give workers the day off after extreme weather like recent monster storm Mangkhut.
Legislators insisted officials do more to protect workers, and make it illegal for bosses to penalise them for not showing up after a major disaster.
They cited the thousands of workers left confused and angry by the large-scale suspension of public transport services when they tried to return to work after Typhoon Mangkhut tore through the city on a Sunday last month.
Some who did not make it to work had their annual leave deducted, one lawmaker said.
When chaos erupted on the Monday, critics asked why Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had not urged employers to give workers the day off.
Lam said it would have been irresponsible for her to do so, though she asked Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu to review how the government handles work and travel arrangements after major storms.
The two camps’ show of unity on Thursday took place at a special meeting of the Legislative Council House Committee, which is tasked with scrutinising bills before they are tabled at full council. The meeting had been called, despite the summer recess, for officials to brief legislators on their post-typhoon work.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung admitted what happened after Mangkhut was “unexpectedly bad”, but maintained the government had prepared well for the storm, the worst to hit the city since records began.
Mangkhut’s strong gusts damaged homes and office buildings, flinging heaps of debris across many parts of the city, while the heavy rain it brought caused serious flooding in sea-facing and low-lying areas.
Residents woke to more than 600 sections of road blocked by strewn trees and other debris, forcing bus companies to suspend most services. Ferry and rail operators struggled to resume full services, resulting in long queues at stations and stops.
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, of the pro-democracy camp, said his party’s proposal gave the Chief Executive in Council the power to declare a state of disaster after a major incident, meaning people would not have to go to work.
Bosses would be fined HK$50,000 for firing an absent employee for not turning up, or deducting pay, the opposition lawmaker said.
Legislator Alice Mak Mei-kuen, of the pro-establishment Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), said her party would proceed to draft a similar bill if the government refused to “rectify” the current situation.
“We have received complaints from employees that they got their annual leave deducted for failing to get to work after Mangkhut. That is so unfair,” Mak said.
“It would be easy for the government to amend the law to better protect employees. If the government does not do it, we shall do it.”
The federation proposed tougher measures against such bosses, with a fine of HK$350,000 and three years in jail.
Michael Luk Chung-hung, another FTU lawmaker, said it was unlikely any party would oppose the bill.
Yeung said: “Political stances should not be a factor when it comes to labour protection.”
The Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, states that private members’ bills – which are generally introduced my legislators – can only be tabled if they “do not relate to public expenditure or political structure or the operation of the government.” The written consent of the chief executive is also required before bills relating to government policies are introduced.
Luk said the chances of his party tabling a private member’s bill were slim but that they raised the possibility to focus attention on the issue, fuel discussion at Legco and press the government to act.
Pro-business legislator Jimmy Ng Wing-ka urged the government to state clearly when employees had to return to work after typhoon warnings were taken down.
“So, after that period, the employers can act accordingly,” Ng said.
At Thursday’s meeting, lawmakers accused officials of being too slow in post-recovery work. A severely damaged public sports ground in Siu Sai Wan will be closed for three to six months for repair, while fixing a sewage treatment plant in Sai Kung will require about three months.
Cheung said the government was also reviewing its post-typhoon recovery performance.
“We are keeping an open mind and all suggestions and views will be considered,” he said. “The government fully understands the feelings of the public. We are trying to learn a lesson and will work out how best to deal with similar situations in future.”