The SAR’s first statutory minimum hourly wage, HK$28 ($3.60), came into force in 2011. It was adjusted to HK$30 ($3.86) in May 2013. In September 2013 the government’s Commission on Poverty set the official poverty line at half of the median monthly household income before tax and welfare transfers based on household size. For a one-person household, the poverty line was set at HK$3,600 ($463), for a two-person household HK$7,700 ($990), for a three-person household HK$11,500 ($1,480), and so on. According to this definition, more than 1.31 million persons (in a population of approximately 7.18 million) were living in poverty. A study released in November 2013 by a group of Hong Kong and British academics claimed there were 160,000 more Hong Kong citizens ( a total of 1.47 million) living in poverty than shown in government estimates.
Employers and employer associations often set wages. Additionally, some activists claimed that employers used employment contracts that defined workers as “self-employed” to avoid employer-provided benefits, such as paid leave, sick leave, medical insurance, workers’ compensation, or Mandatory Provident Fund payments. According to the Labor Department, there were cases in which employers faced heavy court fines for such behavior. The department held that it was seeking to promote public awareness, consultation, conciliation services, and tougher enforcement to safeguard employees’ rights.
There is no law concerning working hours, paid weekly rest, rest breaks, or compulsory overtime for most employees. For certain groups and occupations, such as security guards and certain categories of drivers, there are regulations and guidelines on working hours and rest breaks. According to the General Household Survey conducted by the Census and Statistics Department during the year, approximately 17 percent of employees worked 60 hours or more per week. The law stipulates that employees are entitled to 12 days of statutory holidays and employers must not make payment in lieu of granting holidays.
In September the government raised the minimum wages for foreign domestic workers from HK$4,010 ($515) per month to HK$4,110 ($530) per month for all new contracts signed after October 1. The government also increased the mandatory food allowance for such persons working in homes where their employers did not provide meals.
The government’s Standard Employment Contract requires employers to provide foreign domestic workers with housing, worker’s compensation insurance, travel allowances, and food or a food allowance in addition to the minimum wage, which together provided a decent standard of living. Foreign domestic workers could be deported if dismissed. After leaving one employer, workers have two weeks to secure new employment before they must leave the SAR. Activists contended this restriction left workers vulnerable to abuse by employers. Workers who pursued complaints through legal channels could be granted leave to remain in the SAR but could not work, leaving them either to live from savings or depend on charitable assistance.
The government contended that the “two-week rule” was necessary to maintain effective immigration control and prevent migrant workers from overstaying and taking unauthorized work. Regarding maximum hours and rest periods, the government stated that the rules on these issues cover local and migrant workers. In its explanation of why live-in domestic helpers (both local and foreign) would not be covered by the statutory minimum wage, the government explained that “the distinctive working pattern--round-the-clock presence, provision of service-on-demand, and the multifarious domestic duties expected of live-in domestic workers--made it impossible to ascertain the actual hours worked so as to determine the wages to be paid.”
Domestic workers were often required to live with their employers (who did not always provide separate accommodation for the worker), which made it difficult to enforce maximum working hours or overtime regulations. They could also be subject to physical and verbal abuse, poor living and working conditions, and limitations on freedom of movement.
During the first eight months of the year, the Labor Tribunal convicted three employers on 13 counts of wage default, annual leave default, and failure to pay awards in cases relating to the employment of foreign domestic workers. From January to August, 59 foreign domestic workers filed criminal suits, 25 of which were against employers for mistreatment, including rape (one), indecent assault (five), and wounding and serious assault (19).
In August a pretrial hearing of the case began involving Indonesian domestic helper, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who was allegedly severely abused while working for her former employer. The trial against her employers for violations of labor and criminal laws was slated to begin in December. The Hong Kong Police Force and Labor Department sent a team of officials to Indonesia in mid-January to collect voluntary testimony and evidence from Erwiana and to explain further her rights under Hong Kong’s labor and criminal laws. Erwiana’s case made international headlines after it came to light earlier this year.
Laws exist to provide for health and safety of workers in the workplace, and these laws were effectively enforced.
The Occupational Safety and Health Branch of the Labor Department is responsible for safety and health promotion, enforcement of safety management legislation, and policy formulation and implementation. In the first eight months of the year, the Labor Department conducted 85,538 workplace inspections and served 2,131 suspension/improvement notices. During the same period, authorities levied fines totaling HK$13,604,470 ($1.75 million) for 1,314 infractions identified through workplace inspections.
In the first quarter, the Labor Department recorded 8,219 occupational injuries, including 2,475 classified as industrial accidents. In the same period, there were 10 fatal industrial accidents. Employers are required to report any injuries sustained by their employees in work-related accidents. Labor activists raised the issue of the increase in deadly industrial accidents, mainly due to construction and infrastructure projects.
No laws restrict work during typhoon or rainstorm warnings. Nevertheless, the Labor Department issued a “code of practice” on work arrangements in times of severe weather, which includes a recommendation that employers require only essential staff to come to work during certain categories of typhoon or rainstorm warnings. Both progovernment and pandemocratic unions called for a review of protections for workers during inclement weather, including legal protections.