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Friday, Oct 02, 2020

Hong Kong, which, according to a 2016 study by financial services firm UBS, had the longest working hours among 71 world cities surveyed

With overworking becoming a worldwide phenomenon, the World Health Organisation in May officially classified workplace burnout as an occupational syndrome. Those who experience burnout may suffer from energy depletion or exhaustion, mental detachment from work and poorer performance.

The trend affects not only professionals but also those in manual labour and blue-collar jobs, with experts citing unfair employer-worker dynamics, an unhealthy culture and inadequate legislation as reasons for its perpetuation.

In Hong Kong, the workaholic culture has persisted for years. A study released in April by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) showed that one in five of the city’s more than 3 million employees worked an average of 55 hours per week last year, or 11 hours a day.

According to the study, employees in sectors such as security, food and drink, land transport, construction and retail had the longest working hours. Security guards suffered the most, with one in four of them pulling more than 72 hours a week.

Charlie So, 63, is a security guard at a residential building in the city’s southern district. He works for six days a week, from 7am to 7pm.

For So, a former sign installer, the work is manageable for his age – mostly registering visitors and patrolling the building – although the long hours leave much to be desired.

“If I were in my 30s, I wouldn’t choose this job,” he says.

Another residential security guard Peter Cheung, 57, also works 72 hours a week. “I don’t have much time for my family,” he says, adding that he plans to retire at 60 to enjoy more free time.

A symptom of social ills

The culture of overwork is a symptom of the city’s chronic social problems, according to experts, with the manpower crunch in sectors exacerbating the issue.

Some sectors like health care have long been plagued by a shortage of trained talent, while poorly paid and strenuous manual jobs also lack new blood.

Official statistics show that the city has 1.9 registered doctors per 1,000 people in the population. The severe shortage of hands can drive doctors and nurses to breaking point, especially during peak flu seasons each year with a dramatic increase in demand for health care services.

Surgeon Fung says often there are only four doctors tending to more than 200 patients at peak times in his hospital. On-call doctors who stay in hospital overnight in case of emergency operations and medical interventions for critically ill patients have to work long stretches continuously, mostly over 30 hours, with little rest.

“It is dangerous not just for doctors, but for anyone whose work requires high-level concentration, to work for more than 20 hours continuously,” he says.

The poor toil long hours too, and in their case it is just to make ends meet. Despite being an international finance hub, Hong Kong still has 1.38 million people in poverty. Faced with astronomical living costs and low incomes, many work overtime to relieve financial strains.

In addition, overworking has become a culture perpetuated among employees, even if they are not forced to. Staff may choose to work overtime to impress their bosses. But with this comes the expectation of reward, and the lack of any may add to frustrations and work stress, becoming a vicious circle.

According to the HKCTU, entry- and mid-level employees saw an average annual income growth of 0.7 per cent between 2008 and 2018, taking into account inflation, while the city’s gross domestic product per capita increased by 2 per cent annually.

“The statistics reflect that despite the contributions made by workers in society, their salaries have not been raised accordingly,” says Carol Ng Man-yee, chairwoman of HKCTU.

She attributes the discrepancy partly to the unfair treatment for the city’s growing flexible workforce.

According to statistics from the HKCTU, the number of workers in this segment, including fixed-term contract staff, temporary employees, part-time employees, self-employed or freelance workers, amounted to 790,000 last year, or 22 per cent of the total labour force.

These workers are subject to a greater risk of unemployment, lower income and inferior labour benefits and protection, as compared with permanent employees. As a result, they lack bargaining power and may succumb to exploitation.

Tin Fong-chak, 31, has been teaching liberal studies at a secondary school in Kowloon for eight years. But during the first six years, he was in trepidation each May for fear his annual contract might be ended by the school.

Fixed-term contracts are commonly used in Hong Kong’s education sector – almost one in five teachers in public primary and secondary schools are on annual contracts, according to the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union. Many of them work overtime to secure their jobs.

Statistics from the union show that 53 per cent of fixed-term contract teachers worked more than 55 hours per week last year, with 10 per cent working more than 70 hours a week.

“We had to fight tooth and nail to keep our jobs,” says Tin, who switched from being on a contract to a permanent role two years ago.

Unbalanced power dynamics in the labour sector is also to blame for the discrepancy between work and pay. Ng criticises the government’s belief in the trickle-down effect – that wealth trickles down from the top of society to the bottom. But in reality, it is those on top – employers and stakeholders – who devour most of the profits, she says.


Murky definitions

Long-term overwork can take a toll on people’s physical and mental health. According to the Labour Department, the number of the city’s occupational fatalities not caused by accidents from 2013 to the end of September 2018 amounted to 635 in total, or more than 100 deaths per year on average.

Heart and brain diseases are the two major causes of deaths, with 362 and 120 cases, respectively, statistics show.

A 2017 survey by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions showed 77.4 per cent of employees surveyed said they faced great stress from work, and the leading cause was long working hours.

For Tin, apart from the normal eight hours at school, he often has to take his work home. Sometimes his students text him late at night asking questions.

He says his wife has complained about how little time he has for his family. “I can never balance work and life,” he says.

Cleaning workers on strike and having lunch on stairs in Kwun Tong. From professionals to blue-collar staff, Hong Kong’s overworking culture permeates all sectors. Photo: Felix WongCleaning workers on strike and having lunch on stairs in Kwun Tong. From professionals to blue-collar staff, Hong Kong’s overworking culture permeates all sectors.

Sixteen years into his career, the early memories of a horrible experience in which he worked for 60 hours on end are still fresh in the mind of Hong Kong doctor James Fung Tak-kwan.

Fung, 40, a general surgeon at Pok Oi Hospital in Yuen Long, says he was once put on two consecutive overnight on-call duties when interning at a local hospital, with each lasting more than 30 hours. He saw more than 100 patients in this span, and was eventually overwhelmed by fatigue.

“I couldn’t function well, and basically I could only copy what other doctors did,” he says. “Looking back, it was dangerous. It was not a humane working condition.”

After working for more than 60 hours straight, Fung took a three-hour nap before getting up to study for his exams, as competition among medical students was fierce.

Fung is not alone in suffering from overwork in Hong Kong, which, according to a 2016 study by financial services firm UBS, had the longest working hours among 71 world cities surveyed.

The trend affects not only professionals but also those in manual labour and blue-collar jobs, with experts citing unfair employer-worker dynamics, an unhealthy culture and inadequate legislation as reasons for its perpetuation.

With overworking becoming a worldwide phenomenon, the World Health Organisation in May officially classified workplace burnout as an occupational syndrome. Those who experience burnout may suffer from energy depletion or exhaustion, mental detachment from work and poorer performance.

In Hong Kong, the workaholic culture has persisted for years. A study released in April by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) showed that one in five of the city’s more than 3 million employees worked an average of 55 hours per week last year, or 11 hours a day.
Security guards are the hardest hit when it comes to long hours. Photo: Roy Issa

According to the study, employees in sectors such as security, food and drink, land transport, construction and retail had the longest working hours. Security guards suffered the most, with one in four of them pulling more than 72 hours a week.

Charlie So, 63, is a security guard at a residential building in the city’s southern district. He works for six days a week, from 7am to 7pm.

For So, a former sign installer, the work is manageable for his age – mostly registering visitors and patrolling the building – although the long hours leave much to be desired.

“If I were in my 30s, I wouldn’t choose this job,” he says.

Another residential security guard Peter Cheung, 57, also works 72 hours a week. “I don’t have much time for my family,” he says, adding that he plans to retire at 60 to enjoy more free time.

A symptom of social ills

The culture of overwork is a symptom of the city’s chronic social problems, according to experts, with the manpower crunch in sectors exacerbating the issue.

Some sectors like health care have long been plagued by a shortage of trained talent, while poorly paid and strenuous manual jobs also lack new blood.

Official statistics show that the city has 1.9 registered doctors per 1,000 people in the population. The severe shortage of hands can drive doctors and nurses to breaking point, especially during peak flu seasons each year with a dramatic increase in demand for health care services.

Surgeon Fung says often there are only four doctors tending to more than 200 patients at peak times in his hospital. On-call doctors who stay in hospital overnight in case of emergency operations and medical interventions for critically ill patients have to work long stretches continuously, mostly over 30 hours, with little rest.

Long hours required of workers whose jobs centre on concentration may lead to dangerous consequences. Photo: Felix Wong

“It is dangerous not just for doctors, but for anyone whose work requires high-level concentration, to work for more than 20 hours continuously,” he says.

The poor toil long hours too, and in their case it is just to make ends meet. Despite being an international finance hub, Hong Kong still has 1.38 million people in poverty. Faced with astronomical living costs and low incomes, many work overtime to relieve financial strains.

In addition, overworking has become a culture perpetuated among employees, even if they are not forced to. Staff may choose to work overtime to impress their bosses. But with this comes the expectation of reward, and the lack of any may add to frustrations and work stress, becoming a vicious circle.
Some employees may choose to work overtime even if they are not forced to, to please bosses.

According to the HKCTU, entry- and mid-level employees saw an average annual income growth of 0.7 per cent between 2008 and 2018, taking into account inflation, while the city’s gross domestic product per capita increased by 2 per cent annually.

“The statistics reflect that despite the contributions made by workers in society, their salaries have not been raised accordingly,” says Carol Ng Man-yee, chairwoman of HKCTU.

She attributes the discrepancy partly to the unfair treatment for the city’s growing flexible workforce.

According to statistics from the HKCTU, the number of workers in this segment, including fixed-term contract staff, temporary employees, part-time employees, self-employed or freelance workers, amounted to 790,000 last year, or 22 per cent of the total labour force.

These workers are subject to a greater risk of unemployment, lower income and inferior labour benefits and protection, as compared with permanent employees. As a result, they lack bargaining power and may succumb to exploitation.
Tin Fong-chak fought for his teaching contract before finally becoming a permanent staff member. Photo: David Wong
Tin Fong-chak fought for his teaching contract before finally becoming a permanent staff member. Photo: David Wong
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Tin Fong-chak, 31, has been teaching liberal studies at a secondary school in Kowloon for eight years. But during the first six years, he was in trepidation each May for fear his annual contract might be ended by the school.

Fixed-term contracts are commonly used in Hong Kong’s education sector – almost one in five teachers in public primary and secondary schools are on annual contracts, according to the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union. Many of them work overtime to secure their jobs.

Statistics from the union show that 53 per cent of fixed-term contract teachers worked more than 55 hours per week last year, with 10 per cent working more than 70 hours a week.

“We had to fight tooth and nail to keep our jobs,” says Tin, who switched from being on a contract to a permanent role two years ago.
We had to fight tooth and nail to keep our jobs Tin Fong-chak, teachers’ union member

Unbalanced power dynamics in the labour sector is also to blame for the discrepancy between work and pay. Ng criticises the government’s belief in the trickle-down effect – that wealth trickles down from the top of society to the bottom. But in reality, it is those on top – employers and stakeholders – who devour most of the profits, she says.

Murky definitions

Long-term overwork can take a toll on people’s physical and mental health. According to the Labour Department, the number of the city’s occupational fatalities not caused by accidents from 2013 to the end of September 2018 amounted to 635 in total, or more than 100 deaths per year on average.

Heart and brain diseases are the two major causes of deaths, with 362 and 120 cases, respectively, statistics show.

A 2017 survey by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions showed 77.4 per cent of employees surveyed said they faced great stress from work, and the leading cause was long working hours.

For Tin, apart from the normal eight hours at school, he often has to take his work home. Sometimes his students text him late at night asking questions.

He says his wife has complained about how little time he has for his family. “I can never balance work and life,” he says.
Overworked public doctors call for hospital red tape to be cut

Things are a bit better for Fung as his wife, also a surgeon, sympathises with him. But due partly to their heavy workload and stress, the couple will not consider having children for now.

Unlike injuries or deaths caused by accidents at the workplace, employees suffering from overwork-related illnesses have difficulties seeking compensation.

The Employees’ Compensation Ordinance does not have a legal definition for “death from overexertion” and relevant obligations for employers in respect of compensation.

To plug the loophole, lawmakers have asked the government to regard illnesses triggered by long working hours or work pressure as occupational diseases covered by the ordinance, and make employers liable for compensation.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said in a Legislative Council meeting earlier in May that there is no internationally recognised criteria or medical evidence to link long working hours or stress from work to certain kinds of mental, emotional or physical diseases, which may be associated with a multitude of complex personal, family and work-related factors.

But the Labour Department has been studying the links between deaths and work-induced physical exhaustion. The study will be released by the end of next year.

Apart from affecting individuals, overwork can also pose hazards to public safety in sectors like public transport.

A bus driver who only wished to be identified by his surname Ko works for 10 hours a day starting from 5am. He says many drivers, both young and old, are willing to work longer to earn extra money.

But studies show that long hours behind the wheel can reduce a driver’s alertness and affects motor skills and judgment, thereby increasing the risks of accidents.

“We carry people, not cargo,” Ko says.

Hong Kong’s overwork problem must be solved, the HKCTU’s Ng says. “We are humans, not machines. We all need a certain period of time to rest,” she says. “It is not healthy for employees to exhaust energy to generate profits.”

Trade unions and lawmakers have called for the government to set up legislation which would enforce standard working hours of 44 weekly.

The government set up a Standard Working Hours Committee in 2013 to study the matter and look into overtime compensation. But instead of legislating standard working hours, it has so far only promised to introduce guidelines in 11 industries with regards to divergent views from different sectors.

“The guidelines are not legislation. There will be no responsibilities or consequences if an employer does not abide by them,” Ng says.

For sectors lacking manpower such as health care and education, an increase in the number of staff can help allocate workload rationally.

“Currently, the government is investing more resources in schools to carry out more experiments and activities, which is good. But without adding teachers, that will only add to the burden on existing staff,” says Tin, who is also vice-president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union.

Labour sector lawmaker Jonathan Ho Kai-ming says for those who work beyond the standard working hours, they should have an overtime payment of 150 per cent of the normal wage.

“Hong Kong is a highly capitalistic society where employers tend to squeeze as much out of their employees as possible,” he says. “A higher overtime pay can prompt employers to add staff instead of forcing existing ones to work overtime.”

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