Hong Kong glorifies hard work. The ability to spend countless hours on a task is seen as something that is to be praised, even expected. But, as the backlash against “996” (working 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) grows stronger, perhaps it’s time for us to rethink our priorities as a society and encourage leisure over labour.
Although the problem has gone beyond mere feelings of discomfort – it’s not to the point where we can definitely say it has actually cost lives. But, according to the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, in 2016, 75 Hongkongers between the ages of 16 and 24 chose to end their lives.
Twenty-nine were in full-time education. Long work hours have also indirectly caused the deaths of 21 people in two fatal bus crashes in the past year. Both accidents were attributed to the drivers’ stress and long work hours. The 2016 census also shows that 32,000 Hongkongers are currently working more than 75 hours a week.
Although hard work is to be applauded when people are striving to meet meaningful goals, the sad reality is that most of us are working hard just to survive.
The myth of working hard for an ideal has long been dead in Hong Kong. Cheng Tze-kei, vice-chairman of the Motor Transport Workers General Union said in a report that young bus drivers with families to support are often forced to take an additional three hours of work per day, on top of their standard 12 hour shift, just to make ends meet.
What makes the situation much more depressing is that people who do want to pursue their dreams are actively discouraged in doing so by a society that values certain types of work over others.
Your average social worker who caters for disabled children, for example, is paid far less than an investment banker. That’s why even people who have the skill and ability to follow their dreams might still be forced to work in a profession which they do not enjoy – because it makes more sense financially.
This problem does not have to continue. With 2019’s budget surplus expected to total HK$160 billion, the local government can afford to provide more support to the working class. It can afford to save them from sacrificing their mental health and family relations to work meaningless jobs.
More fundamentally, however, society needs to rethink its priorities and value people accordingly. Hard work only means something when it is done for the right reasons, and Hong Kong is forcing people to do it for all the wrong ones.