Despite government efforts, Hong Kong still lags behind in terms of family-friendly employment laws
The concept of work-life balance is a popular topic. In March, a panel of government advisers commissioned a report that found that 23 per cent of the working population works more than 51.5 hours a week. Long hours and, for some, stressful working environments, are causing deterioration in relationships among working families and are making it increasingly difficult for new mothers, in particular, to rejoin the work force.
Hong Kong is currently behind developed nations in its legislation on family-friendly employment rights. Under the Family Status Discrimination Ordinance, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of “family status”, where an individual has responsibility for the care of an immediate family member. Although this provides a good grounding to protect workers, the conditions are still far from ideal for working families.
Other than this, Hong Kong provides for limited entitlements for statutory annual leave, maternity leave and, as of this year, three days paternity leave under the Employment (Amendment) Ordinance. However, the length and conditions of those periods lag behind those of other regions. Hong Kong has not enacted any maximum working hours requirements (although consultation has taken place), there is no parental leave legislation nor any arrangements where workers can request flexible shifts (subject to acceptance by their employer) or take emergency time off to care for family members. Arguably, this forces workers to take sick leave to help balance their family obligations.
In contrast, for example, Australia’s Fair Work Act sets a maximum of 38 working hours per week, plus reasonable additional hours, entitlement to 10 days of personal/carer leave per year and four weeks of annual leave. This is in obvious contrast to Hong Kong’s environment.
This past July, the Legislative Council’s Panel on Manpower raised a few important issues and updated the government’s current stance on implementing family-friendly employment practices (FFEP). While it has allocated considerable resources to promoting FFEP since 2006, there have not been any notable improvements.
There have been marketing efforts to encourage businesses to adopt them, such as encouraging flexible working hours and setting up a nursery room in the workplace for new mothers.
Although this is seen as a positive step forward, the proposals are limited, with some suggesting that flexible working could mean agreeing to a five-day week, rather than what is often a six-day week for many workers. In developed nations, flexible working generally means shorter weeks, such as three or four days and more open arrangements. However, there is no empirical way of measuring whether these efforts are promoting change in Hong Kong employers.
The Panel on Manpower also discussed working with the Education Bureau to increase the number of whole-day kindergarten places to encourage female homemakers to rejoin the work force. Others say the government should take the lead in promoting FFEP by introducing these policies for civil servants. Currently, some bureaus or departments have flexi-time policies and provide laptops to those wishing to work from home. The Legislative Council should create more family-friendly laws.
As an employer, there are many benefits to internal family-friendly policies such as flexi-time or working from home.
Many businesses see an economic benefit in allowing staff to work at home to save office space and adopt new remote working technologies. There are also likely to be benefits to staff morale and possibly increased productivity. From a health and safety perspective, additional flexibility may reduce tension and stress within the workplace for those balancing home life and work, creating a more positive environment for all.
Employers may also have greater access to a wider talent pool, such as individuals wishing to work in less traditional paradigms, as well as those returning to the workforce after time off (for example study leave, sabbaticals, travel or after having children). Women returning to work after raising children have been targeted by savvy recruiters in a number of industries who see the wealth of expertise this group can bring to business.
As such, family-friendly or flexible working arrangements will boost retention and rehire rates, which will benefit successful companies due to the high cost of training new staff and the shortage of skilled labour in Hong Kong.
Despite the lack of statutory provisions for implementing such policies, it is a wise business decision to introduce them as there are definite advantages that will generate growth.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as HK still letting down its working families.