About Standard Working Hours: Something you need to know

The public will continue to discuss and argue about standard working hours (SWH) even though public consultation conducted by The Standard Working Hours Committee (SWHC) has been completed. During the consultation period, business sectors mobilized hundreds of people to participate to oppose legislation. If we, workers, do not organize to fight for the SWH, it is afraid that the government will abort the legislation.

There are many discourses trying to discredit the SWH, for instance, people say the SWH will cause high inflation, labour shortage, etc. In view of this, we would like to refute these misunderstandings in this article.

Q: Why we need the SWH? Isn’t it better to have flexibility?

A: Long working hours is definitely bad to workers’ health and family. According to a British medical research, working over 11 hours per day may raise the risk of cardiovascular disease by 67%. Also, working long hours means lacking rest time. It will cause illness and industrial accidents, and even “Karoshi”. A survey which was conducted by CUHK shows that half of the respondents agreed long working hours affecting their family life adversely. They cannot do their housework and accompany with their family members. The ILO stresses that productivity will decrease if people work more than 50 hours per week.

Q: Isn’t it fair that if you work more you get more salary?

A: You work more does not mean you get more wages. You may be requested to work overtime without payment if there is no the SWH regulation. According to the government statistic, Hong Kong has more than 340,000 workers whose overtime works are uncompensated. In average, they have 8 hours “free” overtime hours per week. In other words, employers can enjoy a “buy six and get one free” labour. If there is law, every overtime hour should be compensated.

Q: What is the HKCTU’s proposal on the SWH?

A: the HKCTU suggests a 44 hours week (if it is a five and half day work, 8 hours per day. If it is a five day work, daily working hours is roughly 9). If employees are requested to work more than 44 hours per week, 150% overtime remuneration must be paid. For example, one receives $50 per hour; his overtime payment is $75 per hour. Meanwhile, the HKCTU proposes a maximum working hours as 60 per week. All employees should not work more that this threshold except workers in some special industries.

Q: Why do not we set the SWH as 8 hours per day?

A: Different industries have different working time pattern. The proposal maintains certain extent of flexibility and minimizes impacts on business operation. For examples, employees can work 9 hours per day and work only 5 days per week.

Q: Will the SWH cause negative impacts on businesses? Many companies will close down and workers will lose their jobs?

A: Business sector tends to exaggerate negative impacts of all labour protections. Let us look back the minimum wage legislation. Before the legislation, business sector said it would create more unemployment and cause business bankrupt. But all these predictions have never come true. ILO specialist pointed that reducing working hours raise productivity and lower cost. Thus, the SWH will not affect business environment. On the other hand, the SWH ensures that employers should hire enough manpower. It will benefit employment.

Q: Business sector says Hong Kong has labour shortage problem. Will the problem deteriorate after the implementation of the SWH?

A: Hong Kong’s labour participation rate is around 60%, which is lower than other advanced economies’ rates as 70%. Hong Kong’s female labour participation rate (FLPR) is even lower, only around 50%. In other countries, more than 60 or 70% of women work. Working long hours and lack of child and elderly care services are the reasons of low FLPR. Shorten working hours can encourage more women to work. If Hong Kong’s FLPR can rise to advanced economies’ level, meaning 380,000 more people can join the labour market.

Q: I am now working 12 hours per day as a security guard. If there is the SWH, employer will cut my working hours to 8. Then my wages will be cut by one third too?

A: Income is the major factor of people choosing a job. A normal salary of a security guard is around $10,000 per month. If his/her salary is reduced by one third to around $6,000 per month, worker and his/her family members can barely survive. They will choose other jobs with higher salary. In this case, employer must raise wage of security guard to attract people to apply. According to the government statistic, the hourly rates of 12 and 8-hour security guards are $37.5 and $41.1 (2014) respectively. The hourly rate of 8-hour security guard is higher. Meanwhile, we should not forget many employees have no compensation on overtime work.

Q: the SWH will raise the labour cost, and then cause inflation?
A: According to the statistic, inflation is mainly caused by rent uplifted. It has contributed around 50% to the overall inflation rate. Another section is food price which contributed around 30%. Although the SWH may raise the wages, at the same time productivity will increase. Thus the total cost will not increase sharply. In 2011, share of wages in total operating cost was only around 10%. If the wage increases 10%, the total cost only increase 1%. For the estate management fee, wages of security guards and cleaners only share 30 to 50% of total fee. Therefore, if their wages increase 10%, the management fee will raise 3 to 5%.

Q: How to calculate working times as many jobs have flexible working hours?

A: Actually the Minimum Wage Ordnance (Cap. 608) has already defined working time. In brief, working time means any time when the employee, according to the contract or with the agreement or at the direction of the employer, work or travel in connection with his employment. Someone who has flexible working time can also be counted. In other countries, there are also many ways to tackle this issue. Some countries allow the employee and the employer to discuss the agreeable working time, or the law defines normal working times for particular jobs.

Q: the SWH is very difficult to implement. Is it impossible that if a cook leave his work sharply after working 8 hours?

A: This will not be the truth. As we mentioned before, the SWH may not be sharply 8 hours per day. In many countries the SWH is in a weekly basis. It provides some sort of flexibility. You can work less today if you worked longer yesterday. Also, the reference period of calculating hours worked may vary in different industries. In Japan, some industry sections have monthly or even yearly reference periods. In such a long reference period, the average weekly hour limit is 40 hours.

Q: Working long hours is a culture. Can it be solved by the SWH?

A: Many Asian countries which have similar culture with us have reduced their the SWHs recently. In 1997, Japan cut the weekly the SWH from 48 to 40. Korea has dropped their SWH from 44 to 40, starting from 2004 to 2011 by phases. Taiwan also reduced the SWH from 48 weekly to 84 bi-weekly. These amendments have successfully forced down their national average hours worked. From 1990 to 2011, Korean average hours worked sharply cut from 2,700 to 2,200. Taiwanese went down from 2,400 to 2,200 at the same period. Japanese work 300 hours less from 2,000 to 1,700 hours per year. They prove the SWH is work.

Q: Every industry section has its uniqueness, isn’t it ridiculous to set one the SWH standard for all industries?

A: Working time regulations in different countries have certain flexibility and special arrangements for particular industries. For instance, EU has another set of regulations for land transport workers. Because working long hours not only harm transport workers’ health, it also threats the safety of passengers and other road users. In most of the countries, one the SWH standard for all industries is not the case.

Q: Which countries have the SWH regulations?

A: More than 100 countries have some sort of working time regulations. Those regulations have been implemented for decades or even more than a century. The World trend is to reduce working times to less than 40 hours per week. Hong Kong, a so called international city, falls behind other countries in the aspect of working time. Around Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Philippine, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. have working time regulations. Among them, Korea and Japan used to have longer working hours than Hong Kong. But as they reduced their SWH to 40 hours, their average working hours are lower than Hong Kong’s.