The new employment policy under the pandemic economy

In 2020, social activities, economic production and labour markets were paralyzed by Covid-19. In Hong Kong, the government introduced short-term relief measures to subsidize employers’ salary payments. However, there is almost no alternative to protect workers from being laid off. The economic and labour impact by the pandemic is global. Innovative and progressive labour policies were already being experimented and developed in different countries way before Covid-19. Therefore, these measures can be examined as an attempt to tackle the employment dilemma. This article will discuss the effects and prospect of three policies coming from other countries: shortening working hours, work sharing, and universal basic income.

Shortening work hours and Work Sharing

Even without an economic crisis, as long as the production technology keeps progressing while new job positions and innovative businesses are not yet created, manpower and working hours of actual labour will only slowly decrease. It is well known that long working hours is a major problem in Hong Kong. Workers certainly hope to enjoy a better salary. If a policy is as well implemented to shorten work time,  they can have more free time to rest, take care of their families or do what they like after work. In the current economic downturn, the introduction of a work sharing policy will help stabilize the number of job positions, so that workers can keep having an income when the employer can cut some costs.

These two policies can, one complementing the other, meet the demands of the above situation, therefore the policy effect can be maximized. In Sweden, an organization has tried to implement a six-hour working day. It was followed by an increase in productivity and service quality. Some banks in Singapore have also introduced a voluntary work sharing system, in which one job task is shared by multiple personnel. Although their salary and holidays are proportionally compromised, they enjoy a more flexible work-life balance to pursue personal interests. During this pandemic period, to balance and preserve both the general employment habitat and the livelihood of each worker, measures are more welcome if the government is able to mediate in wage arrangements. The Canadian government’s usual employment sharing policy was extended during the pandemic. This allows more companies and employees to reduce working hours with a mutual agreement. Even if there has to be a wage reduction, an employer is able to receive subsidies from the Employment Insurance (EI).

In fact, in addition to securing wage levels, ideally, work sharing should be based on a jointly voluntary condition. If an employer imposes it over the staff, it only means the latter is in a fragile position. However, as a means to live with the pandemic-induced economic recession, shortening hours and job sharing can be a painkiller for both parties. Judging from the experience of foreign enterprises, workers' employment security and collective bargaining relations are the key to success.

Universal Basic Income

Universal basic income is more reformist than the aforementioned policies. The principle is to directly compensate workers who lost their jobs due to technology and automation with the profit by increased productivity. This scheme can remove the labeling concern that exists in the current welfare system. Unpaid workers such as family caregivers can receive independent financial support. The methods and sources of funding for implementing universal basic income vary from country to country due to the huge financial implications. This policy is meant to orient towards people’s living rather than material benefits. Finland has experimented with a two-year policy. Through interviews and comparative studies, it has been testified that citizens protected by basic income have become more satisfied with life, more confident in the future, and have a healthier mental condition.

Same Old Question: Save the Market or The People?

Let’s take Hong Kong as an example. These three policies have long been known by the government or the think tank groups, but we have no news from them.  It is only a matter of will, after all. On one hand, the government officials, as policy makers, often excuse themselves with "where does the money come from" to dismiss those with demands. On the other hand, their duties seem perfunctory because it is also them who rates the market above the people. 
Economies of each country will recover after the pandemic. To withstand this kind of bureaucracy and to push forward these policies, it depends on civil solidarity and resistance.

(Photo: Getty Images)