Only legalisation of standard working hours protects workers, not written contracts

After its meeting today, the Standard Working Hours Committee (hereafter: SWHC) told the media that it would recommend the legislation to provide for stipulation of hours of work, mealtime, rest time in employment contracts. The HKCTU is disappointed by such a recommendation, considering it as a cheap ploy to avoid regulating working hours through legislation. Under the current imbalanced power structure between employees and employers, employees have little to bargain and contract-stated working hours cannot help them resolve the problems of long working hours.

Working hours in contracts as “toothless tiger”

The HKCTU emphasizes that legislation of standard working hours is the only way to encounter the problems of long working hours. However, the SWHC puts the focus on stipulation of contracts, which is entirely missing the target. Under the current imbalanced setting of labour relations, employees have very little say and often cannot refuse when being asked to work long hours and overtime without pay. If the legislation would only require the stipulation of working hours in contracts, employers would simply write 12 or even 14 hours per day into the contracts and make workers work long hours without overtime premiums.
Such an unfair contract leaves an employee little room to resist. According to the current labour legislation, when an employee disagrees with changes made by an employer, it would only be treated as a dismissal. To keep her/his job, an employee could only accept the new terms and conditions. In other words, an employer can always make changes to extend the working hours.

720,000 workers with long hours written in contracts

In reality, workers in many sectors, such as catering, security services and transportation, have been working long hours. Contracts simply put 12 hours per day or longer as terms and conditions. The government’s Report of the Policy Study on Standard Working Hours has listed six industries, affecting over 720,000 workers, which often have a 54-hour working week. In their contracts, long working hours is the norm. It means if the government would follow SWHC’s recommendation, these workers would continue to suffer from long working hours.

Problem unresolved by sidestep

The HKCTU repeatedly advocates for the legislation of standard working hours, seeing it as the only way to improve the situation. The SWHC’s recommendation attempts to sidestep such a legislation, is a betrayal to workers. In 2006, the Hong Kong Government also tried to avoid the legislation of minimum wages, by replacing it with the Wage Protection Movement, a campaign which failed and wasted workers’ time. Now, the SWHC’s recommendation is likely to have the same fate.

The SWHC accuses the legislation of standard working hours as a move of “generalization”, which is indeed misleading. Legislation of standard working hours does not mean losing flexibility, some sectors are entitled to apply for exemptions or make special arrangements,  as examples shown in many other countries. Some industries are given longer reference period, e.g. in the UK, 17 weeks are given as reference period, under the condition that the average weekly hours are not exceeding the standard working hours. The SWHC is fully aware of these arrangements and yet, it intentionally portrays the standard working hours as an inflexible single standard to the public, which is misleading and shameless.

Standard working hours is not a scourge

The ILO research has confirmed that standard working hours would not have any negative impact on economy and employment. Many other researches even prove that regulation on working hours could raise the productivity and cut costs. The HKCTU has been updating the SWHC with these findings and organized experts from ILO to share its expertise with the chairman of SWHC, Dr Edward Leong. However, the SWHC turns a blind eye to these facts and continues to suggest that legislation of standard working hours could hurt economy and employment, which the HKCTU finds deeply regrettable.
Regarding the standard working hours, the HKCTU’s position is:

  • to oppose the measure of legislation to provide for the stipulation of hours of work and rest time in employment contracts. Such a legislation simply cannot help hundreds of thousands of workers who suffer from long working hours
  • to demand the SWHC to openly support the legislation of standard working hours
  • to push for immediate public consultation on various proposals