Dying to make a living
Working in Hong Kong can be dangerous to your health. While the government and employers bicker about adopting standards accepted all over the industrialized world, overwork is killing people. Willa Wu reports.
For four years, it’s been the same rhetorical tap dance around the question of standard working hours, with no progress toward resolving an issue affecting the health and wellbeing of Hong Kong people. The two sides appear to speak different languages.
“It is hard to establish uniform working hours due to the varying nature of different jobs. No one would accept that a fireman should stop rescuing people because he’d already completed his day’s work,” argues Edward Leong Che-hung, chairman of the 23-member Standard Working Hours Committee, the government-mandated consultative body on the issue.
There never has been a question of whether a fireman should walk off the job at the end of the day. The issue, argue workers’ representatives, is how many hours a person can be required to work, and what is fair compensation for sacrificing hours otherwise spent on rest, recreation and family life.
Discussions are at an impasse, even after the tragedy of Karena Wu, 26, whose last words before slipping into a fatal coma were, “It’s too late. I can’t finish my work. What can be done?”
The committee ostensibly is comprised of employer and employee representatives, along with representatives from academia, the community and the government. But the six employee representatives walked out in November 2015. They boycotted committee meetings, angry they can never reach a solution. The six, who account for half of the Labour Advisory Board members on the committee, cited the refusal by employer representatives to consider legislation to establish a mandatory premium for overtime work.
In April, the committee proposed holding a public consultation on a solution called “big frame, small frame”. The difference between the two approaches lies in scope — whether it covers all employees or only some. That was the final straw. The six employees’ representatives who boycotted the committee for five months resigned, arguing the employers’ proposal was not made in good faith. They said it would do nothing to protect salaried employees from overwork, perhaps the reverse.
The “big frame” proposed a new legislation to require employers to provide employees with written contracts setting out working hours. Overtime hours and compensation for over- time were to be set by negotiation. Labor spokesmen countered that the “big frame”, affecting most workers, would strengthen advantages employers hold in contract negotiations.
Lawmaker Kwok Wai-keung of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions supported the walkout. He dismissed the “big frame” approach as nothing but “filling in the loopholes existing in the previous policy” by emphasizing the binding authority of work contracts. He said the proposal did not address unlimited and frequently unpaid overtime.
The “small frame” approach is supposed to protect low-income workers by proposing overtime compensation. The committee proposed that standard working hours could be set for employees with monthly earnings below a certain level, perhaps at around HK$25,000.
Leong says “big frame, small frame” emerged from an industry survey and public consultation in 2014. He says the public consultation showed that over 70 percent of 10,000 employees and employers believed standard working hours should be subject to contract negotiations.
Worst in the world
When asked whether the government should provide guidelines, as employees may face exploitation, Leong replied, “I don’t think we need such a thing.” He then elaborated on the difficulties of mandating uniform working hours.
Working to the point of ill health is common in Hong Kong. A survey of 71 cities by the Swiss banking group UBS in May found Hong Kong people often worked over 50.1 hours a week. That earned Hong Kong the distinction as “worst in the world”. The global average working week is 36 hours and 23 minutes.
Hong Kong has neither statutory restrictions concerning working hours, nor any premium for work at night, nothing extra for working days off, nor for working overtime, as outlined by the World Bank in its report in June on global labor regulations.
Hong Kong’s labor sector takes a more lenient view than the global standard. The labor sector here demands a standard working week of 44 hours and acceptance of the almost universal standard of “time and a half ” (150 percent) compensation for overtime. Employer groups will not accept it.
Singapore, Hong Kong’s strong competitor in Asia, has mandated a standard 44 hour working week and time and a half compensation for overtime. In Japan and South Korea, standard working hours are 40 hours a week.
For average workers, finding time away from the job to enjoy life is an elusive dream. It took about nine months for Martina Yuan Shuai to realize what it means to be a vulnerable member of the workforce. She is a newcomer and in her late 20s.
She’d sit in her office in Kwun To n g o n t h e phone coordinating
We are human beings, not machines. Even machines need to rest from time to time.”