The birth of Statutory Paternity Leave – a fine balancing act in employer/employee relationship
20 December 2014
I was gripped by both anxieties and elation last week with the advent of statutory paternity leave in Hong Kong following the passage of the Employment (Amendment) Bill 2014 after 16 hours of intense and acrimonious debate in the Legislative Council. This landmark legislation is expected to take effect after the Lunar New Year next February.
The new law aims to provide three-day paternity leave to eligible male employees with pay at four-fifths of the average daily wages. It is a milestone in the advancement of labour rights in Hong Kong after more than eight years’ discussions in the community. This significant step forward is made possible by the consensus reached in the Labour Advisory Board (LAB) after rounds of negotiation among its employer and employee members.
In the course of scrutinising the Bill, some legislators criticized the government proposal as too conservative. They put forward amendments to increase the duration of statutory paternity leave to seven days and raise the rate of the pay to full pay. While their intention is understandable, we must recognize the fact that the vast majority of Hong Kong employers are operators of small and medium enterprises. It is vitally important to take into account their affordability in introducing any new labour benefits. Seen in this light, the government proposal is pragmatic, prudent and reasonable. It is very much a breakthrough and an appropriate starting point.
After all, the cost for providing statutory paternity leave in the private sector will be solely borne by employers of varying sizes. As such, when enacting any labour law on staff welfare, the Government always has to balance employees’ benefits and employers’ affordability carefully.
I should stress that the legislation only sets out a statutory threshold. The Government encourages employers to provide their employees with benefits better than the law having regard to their own business operation and affordability. While some employers are already providing longer periods of paternity leave to their employees out of their own goodwill, prescribing this in the law rigidly is an entirely different matter.
The Government has pledged to review the implementation of statutory paternity leave one year after its coming into effect and see if there is any room for improvement.
Harmonious labour relation has all along been the bedrock of Hong Kong’s prosperity. It is also the very purpose of establishing the LAB more than eighty years ago. The LAB has been playing a crucial role after the Second World War as a high-level tripartite platform for employers, employees and the Government to discuss labour matters. All labour legislation as well as major policy and initiatives affecting labour are deliberated and agreed by the LAB before their introduction. It is noteworthy that only through such a representative mechanism respected by stakeholders that the interests of all parties concerned can be taken care of.
Under this mechanism, labour rights in Hong Kong have been steadily improving. Recent examples include the smooth implementation of the Statutory Minimum Wage and the continuous improvement in the coverage of the Protection of Wages on Insolvency Fund over the years. These are the outcome of candid, sincere and continuous dialogue coupled with mutual understanding which leads to consensus. In fact, any improvement in labour rights and benefits must also keep pace with Hong Kong’s socio-economic development. There is simply no quick fix.
To give effect to the statutory paternity leave, the Government will gazette a commencement notice as soon as possible. Given the support of the Legislative Council, the new benefit will come on stream by the end of February 2015. The timing is auspicious as it falls within the first month of the Lunar New Year.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to all legislators for their support of this family-friendly employment policy, thereby enabling the birth of the paternity leave to the delight of many prospective dads and moms.