Weaker framework on Hong Kong standard working hours lacks legal sanctions


When Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor inherited a raft of unfinished policy commitments from the previous government last year, hopes were high that they could be resolved with some new thinking. Almost one year has passed but some deadlocks are sadly still unresolved.

On the question of a law on standard working hours, the new leader did come up with a solution, although to the disappointment of many workers. The protection under the revised framework appears to be even weaker than the watered-down version mapped out in the final months of the former government.

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Instead of legislating to require bosses to spell out working hours and overtime compensation in contracts for jobs with a monthly wage of HK$11,000 or less, the new government has decided to only issue non-binding guidelines for 11 trades by 2020.

The situation will then be reviewed after the guidelines have been in place for three years. That means legislation will not be considered in the next five years.

First mooted by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the idea of a standard working hours law is meant to prevent workers from being abused and to achieve better work-life balance in our workaholic society.

The previous government came under fire when it dropped an all-encompassing law in favour of a contractual approach targeting just low-income earners. The use of guidelines is even weaker in that they have no legal sanctions and only cover some labour intensive industries. Most office workers will be left out.

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The government is not entirely to blame for this outcome, though. The business sector has long been defiant, using the same doomsday scenario in the minimum wage debate to reject a law on working hours. The government probably would not have backtracked had bosses not been so resistant.

There are practical difficulties in implementing across-the-board legislation. The issues are also more complex than those involved in the minimum wage. That is why a different approach has been put forward.

We hope the government will not easily cave in to business opposition when handling other outstanding issues.

The matter of standard working hours is not part of Lam’s electoral promises, but as No 2 in the previous administration, she is still carrying that baggage. The public expects more proactive solutions from her can-do work style.

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Whether the guidelines can guard against overwork without due compensation remains to be seen. In the case of the statutory minimum wage, the Tsang administration first launched the initiative with a charter, along with a pledge to go further if the voluntary approach did not yield satisfactory results. Officials should consider other measures if the guidelines are proved to be ineffective.

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