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Legislation earns people's ire
Published on Friday, 20 May 2011
Hong Kong activists join the May Day march. The city introduced a minimum wage law that has divided labour and business groups for years.
Photo: Mike Clarke

The long-anticipated introduction of a minimum wage law in Hong Kong has not been met with fanfare, but has instead given rise to confusion and recriminations on all sides.

While the legislation that took effect on May 1 was passed by the Legislative Council almost a year ago, a lot of grey areas remain.

The whole process is half-baked, according to Willy Kwong, a member of the Minimum Wage Alliance, because the government has failed to give clear directions over the most contentious issues of whether meal breaks and rest days should be paid by employers.

"There has been too much negative publicity. Not only are bosses reluctant to accept the new wage system, workers are also unwilling to be drawn into the whole controversy fearful that it might affect their employability," he says.

There is also the problem of unscrupulous employers forcing workers to sign false contracts to claim they are self-employed in order to avoid paying the minimum hourly wage of HK$28.

Kwong says this kind of "outsourcing" business practice has become more prevalent since the new law came into force, and many workers' unions have set up hotlines to deal with complaints and offer advice and counselling.

He says outsourcing is a practice commonly used to reduce headcount, but many unethical bosses use it as a tool to exploit low-skilled workers who have little bargaining power in a highly competitive job market.

The solution, Kwong argues, is for the government to take the lead in spelling out exactly what is compulsory under the law, and convincing employers and employees that a minimum wage law is a good thing for the labour market in the long run. "The government needs to urgently address the issue and dispel all the uncertainties," he adds.

Poon Man-hon, a policy researcher with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, a local labour and political group, agrees that the government needs to step in to untangle the deadlock.

"The law should not allow any room for 'imagination' because any such space would provide opportunities for people to apply their own interpretations which could lead to confusion and in some cases, even exploitation," he warns.

Poon stresses that more public education is needed to help employers understand the importance of a wage floor for the sustainable development of the labour market and workforce.

"It seems the government just gives us the final destination, but without giving us any idea or providing appropriate transport for us to get there. The law is in place and I believe there are many employers who want to support the law. The government needs to clear the way and eliminate the grey areas," he adds.

Poon says that open and honest discussions between employers and employees are vital, especially now when the law is insufficient.

As for bosses who are financially capable, he suggests that "it would be great for promoting labour relations if they could implement the formula of 9,28,31 - pay workers HK$28 an hour for nine hours a day and 31 days a month".

"In an ideal world, we want to see everybody earning a reasonable living but, unfortunately, our world is rather warped at the moment," he adds.

Legislative councillor Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, a member of the Liberal Party who represents the catering industry, says the government should have allowed both sides more time to digest and understand the law before introducing it in May.

"The government has literally stuffed the minimum wage law down our throats," he says.

"A couple more months would have made a lot of difference, giving both sides more time to understand the new legislation, negotiate and make changes to existing contracts, and adapt to the new arrangements," he adds.

Cheung further points out that the law has not only caused confusion over paid meal breaks and rest days, but has also created unnecessary conflict and misunderstandings between employers and employees. Moreover, it has inadvertently disadvantaged the middle and top sectors of the workforce because resources are being shifted to the lowest paid staff.


A wage revolution

  • Brings benefits to 270,000 low-paid workers or about 10 per cent of the working population
  • Protects grassroots' labour rights
  • Narrows the rising income gap