Work­ers’ in­ter­ests cru­cial

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

Hong Kong peo­ple don’ t need for­eign think tanks to tell them they’ve be­come in­creas­ingly un­happy. They also know their dis­con­tent is firmly rooted in the widen­ing wealth gap be­tween the rich mi­nor­ity and the poor ma­jor­ity, while those in the mid­dle are squeezed by sky­high prop­erty prices and stag­nant in­come.

To be sure, ro­bust eco­nomic growth in the past few years has cre­ated many new jobs in the dom­i­nant ser­vices sec­tor. But most of th­ese jobs re­quire lit­tle skill and are of low pay, of­fer­ing min­i­mal chances for ad­vance­ment. Work­ers are fur­ther dis­il­lu­sioned by the gov­ern­ment’s re­luc­tance to pass laws that can bet­ter pro­tect their in­ter­ests against the per­ceived avarice of busi­ness own­ers. A case in point is a pro­vi­sion in the la­bor law al­low­ing an em­ployer to charge off sev­er­ance pay against a worker’s pen­sion fund bal­ance. This pro­vi­sion has ef­fec­tively nul­li­fied the em­ployer’s sev­er­ance pay­ment obli­ga­tion un­der the law.

In a TV talk­show, David Wong Yau-kar, new chair­man of the Manda­tory Prov­i­dent Fund (MPF) Schemes Author­ity, which over­sees the man­age­ment of HK$600 bil­lion in MPF funds, said there’s a rea­son for the so­called “MPF swap” ar­range­ment to ex­ist, and chang­ing that would re­quire a con­sen­sus of all in­ter­ested par­ties. Wong, who hails from the busi­ness sec­tor, much to the cha­grin of la­bor unions, didn’t elab­o­rate. He doesn’t need to be­cause most work­ers un­der­stand that the ar­range­ment in ques­tion was put in place by em­ploy­ers through lob­by­ing ma­chines op­er­at­ing pub­licly and be­hind the scenes.

The gov­ern­ment has also drawn the ire of ma­jor work­ers’ unions by mak­ing what th­ese groups con­sider to be un­ac­cept­able com­pro­mises that ren­der the pro­posed law to es­tab­lish statu­tory work­ing hours a joke. Many work­ers in the ser­vices sec­tor com­plain they are still re­quired to work a six-day week un­der the new rule which is too flex­i­ble to be of much good to them.

Against the back­drop of an in­creas­ingly tense so­cial and po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, the gov­ern­ment seems to have shown its weak side to the public, when it should be demon­strat­ing its strength as a trusted and ef­fec­tive ar­bi­tra­tor of so­cial and eco­nomic jus­tice. In too many cases, the gov­ern­ment has been seen to have given in to busi­ness in­ter­ests at the ex­pense of work­ers.

The prob­lem with such a per­cep­tion can mul­ti­ply in a se­vere eco­nomic down cy­cle that will in­vari­ably lead to mas­sive worker lay­offs in the highly la­bor­in­ten­sive ser­vices sec­tor, which ac­counts for more than 80 per­cent of to­tal out­put. The HSBC Pur­chas­ing Man­agers’ In­dex — one of the most fol­lowed eco­nomic in­di­ca­tors — has clearly tracked a down­ward trend.

Even in this bas­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, em­ploy­ers must re­al­ize that al­low­ing so­cial ten­sion to build up to break­ing point is not good for busi­ness. It’s time for them to make some com­pro­mises in fa­vor of the work­ing masses. The au­thor is a se­nior fi­nan­cial edi­tor of China Daily Hong Kong edi­tion.

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