A pro-establishment lawmaker representing catering sector employers continued to oppose a Hong Kong government proposal to increase statutory paternity leave from three days to five, claiming the benefit itself should not even exist, as demands for more would be “never-ending”.
Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, an executive councillor and chairman of the business-friendly Liberal Party, said on Thursday that the granting of paternity leave should be left to the employer’s discretion rather than being a statutory right, as the city had a “severe shortage of workers”.
“Every year, it’s like this. When the government proposes to add two days, labour unions and lawmakers demand more meat on the bone,” he said on a radio programme. “Some will want seven days, others will call for 10.”
“I really don’t think this is a desirable thing … It will be never-ending.”
Cheung said that “back in the 1980s” there was no legally mandated paternal leave, but many companies would still grant “white days” for funerals and “red days” for auspicious events such as births and marriages without the need for “inflexible” labour laws requiring them to do so.
He added that firms able to afford paternity leave could offer it as a company benefit to attract talent if they wanted to, but there was no need to legislate.
The lawmaker has been chastised and challenged by labour groups and politicians from across the political spectrum, including members of his own party, after making similar comments on a television programme last week.
Ng Chau-pei of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions described Cheung as taking part in a “barbaric form of capitalism” and said the lawmaker should not compare the present and the past.
Cheung admitted that his opinions reflected those from the catering sector but did not represent the view of the Liberal Party, which supported the increase in paternity leave.
“Right now [the catering sector] is actually short of 10,000 to 20,000 workers,” Cheung said. “If people are gone, where are you going to hire help or temporary help? Their colleagues and those without this [extra] leave will not be as fortunate.”
Citing other costs and pressures employers had to face, such as a rising minimum wage and the soon-to-be-scrapped offsetting mechanism for staff pension funds, Cheung added: “No one issue will impact the industry too much, but cumulatively, there will be a straw that eventually breaks the camel’s back.”
Debating him on the same programme, Carol Ng Man-yee, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which has been calling for a further increase of statutory paternity leave to seven days instead of five, said the city needed to move with the times as it was already behind international standards.
Nearly 40 countries have legislated paternity leave, with the average length in the European Union being as long as 1.4 weeks, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“If your argument is that it didn’t exist before so it shouldn’t exist now, then it would be very hard to accept,” she said. “People used to live in caves and drink hill water, how can you do that now?”
Ng noted many studies had shown that close physical and mental support from the father after a birth reduced the chances of postnatal depression and would help a mother recover faster, enabling her to re-enter the workforce more quickly
She brushed off Cheung’s claims that worker demands were putting firms out of business, saying that rents, if anything, were the biggest problem.
“Most restaurants that shut are victims of heartless landlords who keep increasing rents. When have you ever heard of shops shutting down because of heartless employees increasing their salaries?”
Following Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s policy address in February, a proposal to extend statutory paternity leave from three days to five was formally put forward by the government in June.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said he expected the legislative process to be completed by the end of the year and the new bill to come into effect before the Lunar New Year.
Paternity leave was introduced into Hong Kong law in 2015.