Hours spite only make for light pockets

Editorial | 15 Jun 2017

Does it strike a nerve when somebody says "pocket this first?"

The last time this expression was repeatedly used was in 2014 and 2015, when Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, then the chief secretary, was tasked with selling political reform to lawmakers and the public during a consultation.

The outcome of that exercise was, as everybody knows, disastrous.

Officials are now resorting to the phrase again, although not in connection with politics per se, but in relation to a policy proposal to regulate working hours. That makes it mandatory for those earning under HK$11,000 a month to have contracts, with work hours and overtime compensation spelt out.

However, standard working hours won't be covered by any legislation.

Isn't this scenario familiar? The government has put forward two choices before everyone: take or leave it.

It's surely not the ideal scenario envisaged by trade unionists.

Standard Working Hours Committee chairman Edward Leong Che- hung pleaded with unionists to accept it first - despite their anger over what they see as a severely watered-down alternative.

Leong urged allowing the proposal to commence, adding that if problems are discovered after two years of practice, it will not be too late to revisit the issue for further discussion.

Employers are notably happy, as they will be free of the pressures arising from statutory standard working hours, over which they have expressed seriously concern.

Anyway, it's common in the commercial world to have contracts - though many aren't as specific as what's being touted - except for the very low-paid segment, where oral agreements are more common and overtime work far more extreme.

Unlike the civil service, compensation for overtime work is a rarity in the private sector.

So, should unionists pocket it first, even though they're finding it so hard to swallow the prescription that was originally meant to bring about a better work-life balance? Their anger is understandable, as they've constantly heard complaints about how long hours have robbed their members of health and family relationships. From the workers' perspective, having standard working hours would be ideal.

In the final weeks of its term, the incumbent government is tabling a plan offering only slightly better protection to extremely low-paid workers. Nonetheless, there are still 550,000 of them who don't have a contract, or whose contracts don't specify how many hours need to be worked - not to mention the lack of compensation for any overtime.

While the proposal as things stand may mean little for most employees, it's relevant to this some half-million "few" who are least able to protect themselves in the labor market.

The pan-democrats made a mistake two years ago when they refused to pocket the limited electoral reforms proposal first. As a result, Lam became chief executive under the same controversial arrangements Leung Chun-ying in 2012.

Perhaps unionists should give the working-hours alternative careful consideration - if they want to see at least some changes.

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