Speech at the Legislative Council on Member’s Motion on Standard Working Hours

Mr. President,

“Minimum wage” and “standard working hours” are often regarded as twins. With the launch of “minimum wage”, “standard working hours” would follow by default. All along I have supported minimum wage. Following its legitimacy, it is about time to look into standard working hours. I believe most businessmen are not against offering better terms of service to workers if affordable. They only worry that legislating for standard working hours would lead to uncertainties and unforeseeable adversities might undermine their businesses. What we should focus here is to eliminate these uncertainties with mutually acceptable arrangements for both employers and workers.

Back in 2009, I tabled a Motion to call for the Government to promote new occupational culture of work/life balance as a campaign, and it was supported by this Council. My intent was to ask the Government to encourage employers to take measures that would allow workers to pay more attention to personal and family life apart from work. In turn, it would help relieve stress from any work/life imbalance. In fact, working hours are too long in Hong Kong. According to the official statistics from the Census and Statistics Department, the median working hours of workers reached 45 hours a week. For industries that are known to be long in hours, like retail, hospitality and catering, etc, the median is 51 hours. Another survey finds that almost half of the executives interviewed in Hong Kong also work more than 51 hours a week, the highest in Asia Pacific.

In my view, if we could strike a balance between work and life, our families would be happier and our society would be more harmonious. It is probably idealistic. In fact, Hong Kong has an unhealthy work syndrome. All are focusing on work and forgetting about life. Now, we are trying to guide our unhealthy society onto the road of recovery and it would take time to adjust. Both workers and employers take time to change their thinking. Minimum wage has been introduced for some time. The community has lived with it and many grass root workers have benefitted from it. Meanwhile, there is an increasing concern about prolonged working hours. We all realize that standard working hours is the next step.

As discussed previously, standard working hours would mean higher overhead for employers. There are also operational issues to overcome. That said employers would still find it advantageous. Studies on workers overseas have shown that better health would bring higher productivity in general. Therefore, higher nominal overhead would be more than offset by higher productivity. Meanwhile, the Government should consider offering incentives like tax concessions to help make the scheme more attractive.

Admittedly, standard working hours is more complex than minimum wage. The focus of minimum wage is simply the process of setting the dollar amount. In standard working hours, however, there are more complicated issues to consider besides setting the hours. They include overtime pay, weekly maximum, and above all protection of workers from “opt-out” under undue influence, etc. They are controversial and there would be anxieties arising from uncertainties.

Moreover, most companies are small to medium in size. Flexibility is essential to their survival. If standard working hours was introduced without taking into account their realities, they would face insurmountable challenges. They might be incapable of deploying staff flexibly to face the changed market setting. Another delicate issue is divergence of businesses. For instance, standard working hours might be simpler and easier to apply in manufacturing and transport but not in services. Thus, one standard would not fit all. Lastly, overseas experiences show that standard working hours needs more time for transition due to its complexity to avoid undue stress on employers. All these issues deserve further considerations.

To sum up, interests of both employers and workers should be borne in mind when considering standard working hours. I agree that a task force comprising different interests should be set up as a forum for reaching consensus among stakeholders. Several learned Members have put forward substantial proposals on the scheme in this debate. In my view, it is too early to consider any detail at this stage. The best way forward is to commission a task force to study the issue in details taking account of concerns of employers and to recommend a scheme that is welcome by both sides.

With this observation, I conclude my remarks.

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