Hong Kong moves closer to standard working hours

Author: Liana Cafolla | Date: 03 Nov 2015

Government recommends legislation but legal changes could take two to four years, experts warn

The Hong Kong government’s Standard Working Hours Committee (SWHC) has recommended that standard working hours be introduced.
 
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.
 
The SWHC’s chairperson, Dr Leong Che-hung, said the committee “has agreed in principle to recommend exploring a legislative approach to mandatorily require employers and employees in general to enter into written employment contracts specifying clearly such terms relating to working hours; eg, the number of working hours, overtime work arrangements and methods of overtime compensation”.
 
The government has come under increasing pressure – including recently from the Alliance for Standard Working Hours, which represents 14 labour groups – to legislate on working hours since implementing statutory minimum pay in 2011.
 
It is now “very likely” that Hong Kong will enact legislation on standard working hours, said Duncan Abate, head of Asian employment and benefits at law firm Mayer Brown in Hong Kong.
 
“Legislation will likely be proposed within the next two years and come into force within the next four years,” he said. “However, precisely what such legislation will look like is unclear.
 
“There are murmurings that it will simply require employers to state the working hours and overtime rates in contracts, but not mandate any particular thresholds. This would be the least invasive. The unions are pushing for legislation setting out maximum thresholds for working hours and minimum thresholds for overtime.”
 
The SWHC said it will carry out detailed analysis of employees who work more than 44 hours per week and earn less than HK$25,000 per month – who mainly work in the security, catering, hospitality and retail sectors, which have been identified as having the longest working hours. Professional services are almost certainly to be excluded from any legislation, said Abate.
 
In a sign of the likely contentious nature of regulating on working hours, the SWHC outlined the breadth of its considerations.
 
“In contemplating a working hours policy, the SWHC needs to carefully consider various factors including employees’ overtime work situation, as well as the possible impacts of different scenarios on employees, employers, enterprises – particularly small and medium-sized enterprises – trades, the overall economy and the labour market, with a view to building community consensus and formulating appropriate and feasible working hours policy options,” it said.
 
Wages are high on the government’s agenda at the moment, with Hong Kong’s financial secretary, John Tsang, recently criticising the rising cost of low-priced labour – such as restaurant dishwashing staff – for increasing the financial burden on the city’s small and medium-sized companies. The remarks, made in Chinese on his personal blog, led to one leading social group highlighting the need to consider the long working hours associated with such jobs.