Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung on Thursday asked for the public’s tolerance and understanding over the time taken to clean up damage caused by super typhoon Mangkhut, but stopped short of offering an apology.

The Legislative Council held a special meeting to discuss the government’s strategy before and after the typhoon. Cheung took questions from lawmakers, as did transport and housing chief Frank Chan and other top government officials.

Legislators praised the government’s preparations for the typhoon last month, but slammed its performance in dealing with the aftermath.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung. Photo: Legco webcast.

Super typhoon Mangkhut was the strongest typhoon to ever hit Hong Kong, and while no casualties were reported, the storm caused widespread property damage and environmental degradation which have taken weeks to fix.

While most lawmakers praised the joint-departmental precautionary measures on Thursday, both pro-establishment and pro-democracy factions attacked the way the government handled Mangkhut’s aftermath. Many criticised the government’s decision not to suspend work on September 17, the first working day after the storm passed.

“Did the government know about the road conditions after the typhoon [on Monday morning], and if so, what was the basis for deciding that workers needed to go to work?” asked lawmaker Gary Fan on Thursday.

“The government understands how the public feels concerning the chaotic transport situation after the storm. However, since most districts were functional, including the MTR, it was not an easy decision to call for a work suspension,” Cheung replied, admitting that post-typhoon arrangements were “not ideal.”

Frank Chan. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Cheung said the decision was not based on economic considerations, but due to the short interval between the lowering of the No. 8 Signal and the start of the working day. On September 17, some public transit hubs fell into chaos as office workers struggled to get back to work.

Cheung did not apologise when prompted, but said the government will “humbly, openly and sincerely” discuss ways to improve. He said the Security Bureau will lead a cross-departmental review later this month.

Lawmakers also raised the issue of workers’ pay being docked, despite Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s appeal to employers not to do so. When asked about the Hospital Authority’s decision to reduce the annual leave of employees who did not come in to work the day after the typhoon, Cheung said it should not have happened.

State of disaster bill

On Thursday the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung and Jeremy Tam proposed a private members’ bill, which would grant the chief executive authority to exempt employees from going to work in emergencies such as natural or man-made disasters.

From left: Alvin Yeung and Jeremy Tam. Photo: Civic Party handout.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam previously said there was no law in Hong Kong that provided a basis for her to order a work suspension.

Under the proposed bill, all employers in public and private sectors – except emergency services – will be governed by provisions with criminal sanctions.

“The focus of this bill is to empower employees. They don’t have to go to work [during disasters] and the bill prohibits employers from penalising them,” Yeung said.

The pro-establishment Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) also supported a similar bill. According to an online survey conducted by the party, 87 per cent of the 690 respondents agreed that the Labour Department should have the authority to order a work suspension, and 19 per cent reported that their pay, annual leave or bonuses were docked for typhoon-related absences.

Protest by workers

Workers’ rights groups held a rally outside the legislature on Thursday, demanding stronger labour protection and additional compensation to workers affected by Mangkhut.

Protesters from HKCTU. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“We know the Labour Department has guidelines for typhoon conditions, but we need laws because so many employers just ignore guidelines,” said a representative from the Confederation of Trade Unions.

Some protesters complained that some restaurant chains – including McDonald’s and KFC – were still open despite the No. 10 Hurricane Signal being hoisted.

One worker in the food and catering industry said that she was unable to return home after her shift ended and was forced to stay at the restaurant overnight, unable to take care of her children at home.

Holmes Chan

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.