With strong opposition from legislators representing the business sector, a legislator’s motion to call for laws to set standard working hours and overtime pay was voted down on Thursday.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s election manifesto had promised that a special committee, comprising representatives of labor, employers, academics and others, will be set up to exchange views on regulated, standardized hours of work.
Though Leung did not mention the committee in his address on Wednesday, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, secretary for labor and social welfare, affirmed on Thursday that the promise remains valid.
Cheung told the LegCo that the Executive Council had already received a government report on working hours in June. The Labour Advisory Board will receive the report in late November and it will finally reach the LegCo’s manpower panel in December.
Labor rights advocates and the administration apparently disagreed on the timing of the legislation.
Thursday’s non-binding motion, moved by Cheung Kwok-che of the social welfare constituency, specified that the government should table the working hours bill before the end of the current legislative session.
Motions that favored such a deadline, gained backing from the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions and the opposition camp. Chan Yuen-han of the union said the city used to reward employees for the extra effort, but now the city is turning into a “slave society”.
“I don’t know since when that Hong Kong has become a place that labor is free,” she said.
Acknowledging the details are complex, she said the society should at least agree that extra working hours deserve to be paid. But some supporters also voiced their hesitation. Charles Peter Mok, who represents the information technology sector, suggested that a weekly benchmark would be unsuitable for engineers, who often work overnight on emergencies.
Cheung did not dispute the pros of regulated working hours, but said it was too early to fix a deadline. "Since regulation on working hours would be very important, complex and controversial, the special committee must be given ample time to deal with all the matters and carry out detailed analysis," he said.
Cheung expressed concern that legislation, hastily passed, will damage social harmony and make enforcement difficult. Failing to get majority support among functional legislators - a body dominated by pro-business lawmakers - the original motion was voted down. DAB newcomer, Ann Chiang Lai-wan, said the regulation might intensify tension at workplaces.
"If a staffer was caught handling personal affairs in the office, or browsing his personal web page during work, should the boss cut his working hours?" Chiang said.
Many pro-business lawmakers also suggested that small businesses could not take on more costly regulation after the implementation of the minimum wage. Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, who just joined the Executive Council, said the regulation is unnecessary because labor can improve quality of life by family-friendly measures at workplaces instead.