Long-hours culture 'unlikely to end soon'
Author: Vicki Arnstein
HR professionals warned of ongoing damage to wellbeing, as high-level Hong Kong talks fail to produce results and Singaporeans toil on
Asian workers put in some of the longest hours in the world, according to successive surveys, much of it unpaid. But employee representatives and HR professionals who might be hoping for a respite from the ongoing toll of overwork on wellbeing have been warned that the situation is unlikely to brighten in the foreseeable future.
In particular, hopes of legislation around working hours in Hong Kong have been dashed following the collapse of talks on the topic. The Hong Kong Standard Working Hours Committee (SWHC) was set up in 2013 to look at legislating on standard working hours and was due to present its findings to the government in March 2016. But that is now unlikely after employee representatives from the Alliance for Standard Working Hours – which represents 14 labour groups – walked out of a meeting with Hong Kong employer organisations at the end of last year.
Hannah Swift, an employment lawyer at Eversheds in Hong Kong, says she does not expect to see any draft legislation “for a considerable period” as a result of the ongoing disagreements over working hours.
“Notwithstanding that the employee reps walked out, I understand that the term of the committee has been extended by a few months for their consultations to continue. “Typically, progress in legal reform in Hong Kong is slow – it is common for new legislation to take years to be introduced.
In light of the lack of detail we have so far regarding the likely legislative framework, it is too soon for employers to take any action.”
The government has come under increasing pressure to legislate on working hours since implementing statutory minimum pay in 2011. The city currently has no standard working hours legislation, with full-time employees working an average of 49 hours per week – among the world’s longest working weeks – with no entitlement to overtime pay.
Swift says that even when legislation is implemented, it is possible that the regulations would be “light touch”.
“Employers may not want to make anticipatory changes that could turn out to be unnecessarily burdensome. For example, to date the legislative approach has only been linked to high-level requirements for employers to include working hours, overtime and overtime calculations within an employment contract. Most companies will be doing this already as a matter of course.”
Cathy Lui, secretariat to the SWHC, remains optimistic: “SWHC has in principle recommended exploring a legislative approach to mandatorily require employers and employees in general to enter into written employment contracts, clearly specifying terms relating to working hours such as the number of working hours, overtime work arrangements and methods of overtime compensation.”
The situation is little better in Singapore, which at 88 hours per two weeks has the highest level of maximum working hours in the world. The Working Hours Survey 2014 from recruitment firm Morgan McKinley found that 82 per cent of Singaporeans still work longer than their contractual hours, with the majority saying they felt culturally obliged to do so.
The link between overwork and both physical and mental ill-health has been made clear by a range of recent studies, and has been highlighted by the CIPD as a key area of focus in 2016. But Andrew Evans, chief operations officer for South Asia at Morgan McKinley, says: “[Our findings] are indicative of the work culture across Asia, where typically longer working hours and late nights in the office are commonplace.
“While the average professional in Singapore seems dedicated to working extremely long hours, our survey highlights that many professionals are indeed disgruntled with the work-life balance issue. Unfortunately, there is not much choice at the moment. While a few companies are able to offer working from home or flexi hours, clearly in the majority this policy is not currently implemented well or deemed acceptable by senior management.”