SCMP Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Five days for all

It is no secret that Hong Kong lags far behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to working conditions and labour laws. Most of the labour force puts in a five-and-a-half-day week - the civil service included - and many others work six days.
Some lower-paid employment involves thoroughly unsocial hours. Part of the reason security men are found sleeping on the job is because they often work 12-hour days, six days a week. People have generally accepted these conditions because in this self-made city, early migrants toiled day and night to get established, and the practice has become a way of life for the generations that followed.
But times have changed. Despite wide disparities in wealth, this is an affluent society, and it is time the SAR had labour laws which reflect that. Local bosses will resist calls for a minimum wage or collective bargaining. But how about introducing a five-day week, not just for office workers, but across the board for all? That has been the norm in the mainland for several years.
In affluent countries like Germany and Switzerland, laws ensure that shops shut promptly at six and stay closed on Sundays. In the United States and Britain, staggered hours keep stores open seven days a week - with the benefit of higher consumer spending. Two different approaches, but both succeed because employees are treated fairly.
Although some office workers in Hong Kong now enjoy a five-day week, virtually all low-paid workers, including those engaged in physically demanding jobs, still work six days a week. As the SAR becomes an information economy, workers displaced by structural changes have been exhorted to upgrade their skills by undergoing re-training, and "life-long learning" has become the rallying slogan. But how can they be expected to spare what little leisure they have for classes when they hardly get a decent rest?
As an aspiring world city, Hong Kong cannot go on imposing third-world working conditions. If the world's top economies and a developing economy such as the mainland's can treat employees appropriately without falling into disarray, what is wrong with the SAR that it cannot do the same?
Employers can be expected to object on the grounds that the economic climate is not the right one in which to raise the prospect of shorter hours. For those resistant to change, there is never a good time to alter conditions. During the boom years, there is a labour shortage. After a recession, there is the bugbear of rising staff costs.
But the choice has to be made eventually. This will never be a world-class city until there is a fairer division of the spoils.