CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 July 2017

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Work contracts not the answer

HONG KONG (SE): Whether the contractual working hours proposal put forward by the government on June 13 would solve the ongoing dilemma of the high number of overtime hours worked by employees in Hong Kong or not remains a moot point.
A statement issued on June 14 by the Hong Kong Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs indicates that it believes that it could well only serve to further muddy the waters.
The commission insists that without a system of standardised working hours a week it is impossible to come up with a fair and just formula on overtime.
It is suggesting setting the standard at 44 hours and anything on top of that should be regarded as overtime and compensated as such.
The commission remains skeptical of the government acceptance of a recommendation from the Standard Working Hours Committee as a general framework for guiding future formulation of the working hours’ policy.
The proposal suggests that an employment contract be signed between the employer and what it terms lower-income employees with a take home wage below $11,000 a month, in which the number of working hours and terms of compensation for overtime are specified.
However, the proposal then becomes vague on how overtime should be compensated, simply saying that employees should be entitled to statutory overtime compensation at a rate not less than the agreed to wage.
The government says it will draft an ordinance and pass it to the Legislative Council for discussion later this year in the hope that the ordinance will be implemented from the end of 2020 or early 2021. It is expected to cover approximately 610,000 employees.
However, the labour commission wants a standard of 44 hours per week to be made law for all employees in Hong Kong, with overtime compensation set at 150 per cent of the standard wage.
It describes this as a minimal expression of respect for the extra hours put in by the worker.
The commission is also calling for legislation to put a cap on the number of hours that can be worked, although this can be adjusted according to the varying needs of the industry and the basic agreements made about flexibility of hours.
Moreover, it emphasised that overtime must be voluntary and an employer cannot force anyone to do overtime.
The labour commission explained that the main problem with the government committee’s recommendation is that without a standard or limit on a normal working week, the system is open to abuse, as it allows for unreasonable demands to be made.
It pointed out that the proposal is intended to protect the lowest ranks of workers who have little bargaining power of their own and it is also worried that in an effort to avoid paying overtime, employers could use a loophole to force vulnerable workers into entering into an agreement that actually extends their work week.
It quotes a survey carried out early this year by a number of groups which reveals that 66 per cent of the employees surveyed said they believe they will have no or little power to bargain with their employers over the number of working hours the contract specifies, if the committee’s proposal was to be implemented.
They believe that this could destroy the value that the Standard Working Hours Committee is seeking to protect in emphasising that all employees, irrespective of rank or income, need time to spend with their families and for rest.
The labour commission also raises the fear that by defining a protected group by income only, the problem of overtime for other groups would remain.
It also quotes a second survey which it conducted last year among Church going people as showing that long working hours have a deleterious effect on family life and their relationship with the Church.
The commission also expressed its concern that the wage level of the protected group in the government proposal is too low.
Citing the Report on Annual Earnings and Hours Survey in 2016, it points out that the median monthly wage of all employees, including unskilled workers, had already moved beyond the $11,000 a month benchmark suggested by the government Standard Working Hours Committee.

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