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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS -

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.”

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