Global Employer Services News January 2022

How will China’s ruling that the “996” work culture is illegal influence on Hong Kong’s agenda?

The recently published Work-life Balance Cities Ranking 2021 compares working conditions in fifty cities around the world to identify those with the best work life balance and those where people are most overworked. The global work-life balance index that was used to compare the cities considers four key pillars and their relevant factors, which are listed in Table 1.

The research companies the data gathered on the factors shown in Table 1 to rank the fifty metropolitan areas for their success or failure in promoting a good work-life balance for citizens. The rankings for 2021 also consider the effect of COVID-19 on people’s work-life balance.

The published data reveals that Hong Kong is the world’s most overworked city, with 29.9% of workers putting in more 48 hours a week. Meanwhile, Singapore and Bangkok are ranked second and third in the list of the most overworked cities in the research index. In the other words, all three cities with the most overworked population in the world are located in Asia.

Table 1: Factors and key pillars influencing work-life balance

* "Overworked population” refers to the percentage of full-time employees who work more than 48 hours in a working week, which is considered excessive when compared with the 40-hour week recommended by the international labour organisation.

Many surveys have revealed that constantly working long hours can expose workers to serious health risks in the long run. So how can the government better protect the health of Hong Kong workers?

One strategy is to introduce statutory working hours, and an article published in the March 2014 issue of APERCU updated readers on the government’s proposal to do so. To review the policies on standard working hours, the government set up the Standard Working Hours Committee (SWHC) in April 2013. The committee members were drawn from the labour and business sectors and also included academics, community leaders and government officials. Members of the SWHC carried out research to gather stakeholders’ views and submitted their final report to the government in January 2017. The report recommended introducing the following legal requirements:

  1. Mandatory written contracts between employers and employees that sate the normal working hours for employees.
  2. Higher overtime rates for low-income workers

The government accepted the SWHC’s recommendation in June 2017 and proposed to introduce them for workers earning up to HK11,000 a month. However, some labour organisations objected to these recommendations because the proposal would not protect earnings above a prescribed threshold, which would put most employees working long hours at a financial disadvantage. Because of the lack of consensus among the labour organisations, the government did not take the legislative proposals further. Instead, in May 2018 they announced that they would focus on formulating non-binding, sector-specific guidelines on working hours for eleven industries: catering, construction, theatre, warehouse and cargo transport, property management, printing, hotels and tourism, cement and concrete, retail, cleansing and care home services. The government intended to publish guidelines for employers by 2020 and review their effectiveness in 2023. This makes it unlikely that legislation on standard working hours will be enacted in the next two years or so. In a separate development, on 27 August the Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security of China (the government bureaus) jointly declared that China’s 996 working culture – where employers in the top tech sectors demand that employees work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week – is illegal. Using the law to eradicate the 996 work culture is one way of reducing inequality in Chinese society and limiting the power of China’s giant tech companies. Indeed, the excessively long working hours in some industries in China has been received more public attention since it was revealed that employees of an e-commerce company died after being forced to work extremely long overtime hours at the office.

China’s government bureaus commented that workers deserve the right to rest days and holidays and that employers have a statutory obligation to adhere to the country’s standard working hours. In general, no more than eight hours a day and no more than forty hours a week. Employees are also entitled to at least one day each week.

With the Chinese government’s strong efforts to protect workers’ rights by cracking down on the 996 work culture perhaps now is the time for the government of the Hong Kong SAR to revisit the policy on standard working hours and set an agenda to expedite the enactment of the legislation of statutory working hours. Alternatively, the government could consider following legal requirements similar to those introduced by the Chinese government to limit the hours worked by employees, either in the eleven selected industries or across the board.

Any changes to the law on working hours in Hong Kong would also have an impact on the labour market, the economy and the wider community, and these would be important to consider. For example, questions must be answered about striking the right balance between employers and employees when safeguarding rights and benefits, and how new legislation would affect flexibility in the labour market and the competitiveness of Hong Kong. With these complexities in mind, all stakeholders need to be fully aware of the issues involved and their implications before taking the legislation on statutory working hours further to alleviate Hong Kong’s culture of excessive work and achieve a better work-life balance.

Joseph Hong