Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung has admitted there was “a considerable distance” between the government’s proposal on overtime pay regulations and demands made by labour unions.

The government revealed a proposal on Tuesday stating that employers must negotiate and indicate working hours clearly on contracts, but the scheme would only apply to employees earning HK$11,000 or less a month – a lower figure than the median monthly wage of HK$16,200 last year.

The plan was suggested in the final report made by the Standard Working Hours Committee and endorsed by the Executive Council. The council did not agree with the committee’s proposal to set up a standard working hours scheme, and was criticised for setting a low threshold for the current contractual working hours plan.

Matthew Cheung Kin-chung
Matthew Cheung Kin-chung. File Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Cheung stressed that the proposed wage level was “a prudent starting point” and not the ending point.

“We will certainly review the situation constantly and regularly, particularly bearing in mind that the wage level of HK$11,000 is based on last year’s figures,” he said on Wednesday morning.

Cheung, who was formerly in charge of labour polices, said that means the wage level could be higher when it is finally implemented by the end of 2020.

“But we need to start from somewhere. This is a breakthrough – it is the first step, it is careful – of course there is a considerable distance from unions’ demands, we know that,” he said. “But considering employers’ ability to adapt – especially that of small and medium enterprises – and the protection of employee rights, I believe it is a reasonable balance.”

“It’s a prudent starting point, [which] also strikes a reasonable balance between protecting the well-being of low-wage grassroots workers on the one hand and employers, particularly small [and] medium enterprises on the other.”

Around 550,000 workers will benefit from the proposal, which would only be 14 per cent of the total workforce. It would cost employers HK$524 million more in wages per year.

Cleaning workers
Sanitation workers are among the lowest paid employees in Hong Kong. File

Outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying mentioned standard working hours in his election manifesto in 2012 and suggested forming a special committee “to follow up on the study on standard working hours,” but did not promise that it will be legislated.

“The government’s attitude from the beginning is that we take an open position – we never made a promise to push for a standard working hours [proposal],” Matthew Cheung said on Wednesday.

Some lawmakers from both the pro-democracy camp and the pro-Beijing camp have said they would not support the proposal.

Three pro-Beijing labour sector lawmakers issued a joint statement expressing their strong disappointment alongside six employee representatives of the Labour Advisory Board.

Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions Mung Siu-tat said the government was twisting the idea of standard working hours into its current form, which would not help solve labour issues.

Lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin of the Federation of Trade Unions said it would be “a waste of time to even submit the proposal to the Legislative Council.”

But Cheung said he was confident the proposal will pass, as it will benefit many workers.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.