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The economy is not 
just about money

For several years workers in Hong Kong have been calling for better regulation of labour, specifically in the areas of a minimum wage and a ceiling on the number of hours an employee can be asked to work.

While the wage level has been addressed, albeit with a level lower than workers would have liked, the hours issue remains in limbo. However, the government has released the findings of the first part of its study on the possible impact of setting a working week at between 40 and 48 hours, as well as penalty rates for overtime.

But the study only looks at half the equation, business costing, without particular reference to what long working hours do to people. It estimates that, depending on the scenario, a further $8 billion to $55.2 billion may have to be found to meet the wages bill if such legislation was to be introduced.

While the figures sound frightening, on a percentage level they translate as 1.7 to 11.4 per cent of the current wages bill. How big a price that is to pay will be the subject of further wrangling.

But this is not merely a financial matter, as it involves the welfare of people, who are easily left out of the equation when finances come onto the negotiation table.

It is also a matter that questions basic assumptions that are made about the workplace. While no one denies that a healthy industrial sector is basic to human well being, it is not just money that makes it healthy.

A healthy workplace demands healthy people, physically, psychologically and spiritually, as does a healthy society.

A seminar at the Macau Ricci Institute in early November named the effect technology is having on people as the big question that is not being asked by economic mangers.

What needs to be questioned in making a decision on working hours is how they affect the well-being of the workforce and society, partly because the welfare of people is at stake, but also because it has an impact on the cost of social infrastructure, as well as business.

Surveys conducted in Australia show almost two-thirds of the population list family as their prime source of happiness and an almost equal number point to long working hours as threatening this.

We know that unstable family life has a negative effect on the ability of people to perform at work and is directly connected with poor health, anti-social behaviour and divorce, all of which have a financial cost.

A survey carried out by the Diocesan Labour Commission found that people working long hours think they neglect their families and feel guilt. They also complain about sickness and fatigue, two factors that have a financial cost both to the public and the industrial purse, as well as to people themselves.

The tone of the government study hints at doom and gloom if legislation on working hours was to be introduced and it is certain that industry will react in a similar way that it did over the minimum wage, even though the predicted dire consequences did not eventuate.

The time comes when profound structural and organisational changes have to be made. It could well begin with a change in language, substituting the word people for labour or the workforce, because that is what they are. JiM