Standard Working Hours Triggers Worries on Employee Relations

Great concerns about employee relations were expressed by HR professionals on standard working hours, another controversial topic following minimum wage. This was reflected by the findings of the Standard Working Hours Survey 2013 conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) in August 2013.


“From the survey findings, we can see that HR professionals are yet to form a clear view on whether standard working hours should be mandated, particularly when there is no consensus on the reasons for introducing it," says Julita Leung, Chairperson of HKIHRM’s Minimum Wage and Standard Work Hours Taskforce. "It is a  brand new HR practice which may create unforeseeable impacts if implemented  without careful planning. As employee relations and business operations are the  major work focuses of HR professionals, it is natural for them to cast doubt on  the issue.”


Legislation of Standard Working Hours in Hong Kong
Views are divided among the respondents, with 29% agreeing, 36% disagreeing and 35% have yet to make up their mind on whether standard working hours legislation should be introduced. This reflects that when the impacts of standard working hours are still unknown, it is hard to come to a conclusion.


When examining the reasons for agreement, more respondents have chosen “help employees achieve better work-life balance” (93%), “reduce health problems and medical cost” (70%) and “increase employees’ motivation and performance” (67%).


When examining the reasons for disagreement, more respondents have chosen “huge increase in manpower/operating costs and decrease in Hong Kong’s competitiveness” (81%), “difficult to define working hours of some positions” (81%), “legislation not the best or only way to ensure good work-life balance” (79%) and “too complicated to implement across different industries due to different business/operational models” (77%).


The above indicates that from an HR perspective, employee wellness is a more sustainable reason for introducing standard working hours. However, manpower cost and possible implementation problems which may affect employee relations are the real concerns of the respondents.


Possible Issues to Address under Standard Working Hours
Regarding the desired optimum average weekly working hours to be set as standard working hours for different levels of employees, “40 to 44 hours” is chosen by more than half of the respondents.


Over-time pay is another consideration. A higher percentage of respondents (73%) agree that more over-time pay should be paid for over-time work on statutory/public holidays. About the over-time pay rate, a majority of the respondents think that it should be set in the range of 100% to 150% of regular pay.


As regards whether opt-out (employees’ choice of not to be covered by the protection of a standard working hours regime) should be allowed, 32% of the respondents disagree and 18% agree. Half of the respondents cannot decide at this point of time.


When asked whether different standard working hours should be adopted, more respondents have indicated that different standard working hours should be introduced based on the nature of “different sectors/industries” (71%), “different occupations/job functions” (66%), and “different job levels” (42%).


Regarding exemption from standard working hours, more respondents have indicated that the following jobs or sectors/industries should be exempted: “occupations with irregular working hours/intermittent work/work with considerable ‘on-call’ duty” (55%), “staff in emergency work” (55%), “selected sectors/industries traditionally requiring long working hours due to business nature” (43%), and “managers, senior-level employees with supervisory responsibilities” (38%).


“The issue of standard working hours involves not only setting the number of working hours, but also associated complicated issues affecting business operations and employee relations," says Leung.


Leung notes that if achieving shorter working hours is the reason for introducing standard working hours, this target will not be realised when employees are willing to work over-time because of financial needs.


Leung cites South Korea, where small enterprises are exempted considering their need for a more flexible business environment which is critical to sustaining their long-term business viability.


"When small- and medium-sized enterprises constitute more than 90% of the total number of companies in Hong Kong, the government has to consider their concerns," says Leung.


According to Leung, the issue of standard working hours, if not handled properly, may create mistrust and lead to dispute, thus damaging business sustainability and harmonious employee relations.


"Standard working hours is certainly not a one-size-fits-all measure. Very careful consideration should be made to avoid any negative impacts on the labour market and business landscape,” says Leung.



Issues Requiring Government’s Attention
The respondents opine that the following should be brought to the attention of the government for consideration:

1. working hours definition and calculation methods
2. possible negative impact of the legislation
3. a clear understanding of the reasons for implementing standard working hours so that the right measures are taken to address these issues effectively
4. exemption
5. over-time pay related issues


“HR professionals believe that standard working hours will be a more controversial issue than minimum wage as it will affect a greater number of employees across a broader scope of sectors," says Laung.


Leung pointed out that that the implementation of minimum wage has created some complications when the pay arrangement for rest days and meal breaks was not well defined by the Minimum Wage Ordinance or the Employment Ordinance.


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