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Speech by the Secretary for the Civil Service at Conference on Balancing Work and Family

Following is the speech by the Secretary for the Civil Service, Miss Denise Yue, on "Stronger Family Stronger Workforce" at Conference on Balancing Work and Family today (May 25)(translation):

Mr Chan, Ms Fang, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured that the Hong Kong Council of Social Service has invited me to attend this Conference on Balancing Work and Family and speak on the subject of "Stronger Family Stronger Workforce". As the Principal Official responsible for the management of the civil service workforce, the subject is one that is indeed close to my heart.

The people of Hong Kong are renowned for being hard working and putting in very long hours at work. In today's fast-paced world, this is understandable as we all face immense pressure of meeting tight deadlines. Job demands often have to be met and satisfied instantly anytime anywhere, given the ubiquity of mobile phones and e-mails. We are so stretched and busy with our work that, more often than not, we lack sleep and exercise. As a result, we lose patience easily and cannot afford to attend to our personal and family commitment. I am glad to see that the Council has made "Balancing Work and Family" its corporate focus this year. And I hope more and more employers and employees would come to realize that helping our workforce maintain a healthy work-life balance is to the mutual benefit of both the individuals and business, as well as conducive to a more harmonious society.

From the business point of view, a motivated and satisfied workforce will no doubt provide better customer service and have greater productivity. There will also be benefits in terms of lower rates of absenteeism and sick leave. For individuals, maintaining a healthy work-life balance will help reduce stress, bring upon improved relationships, increase productivity and contribute to a more harmonious family life.

If we want our employees to be able to deal with the multiple demands of work and family, we should perhaps ask how we can help them to do so. Earlier this month, the Council released the results of a web poll on "Family Friendly Measures". The finding that "five-day week" is regarded as the most family friendly measure is easy to understand. Five-day week means our employees will have more time to spend with their families and friends, pursue hobbies, sports and cultural activities or take part in voluntary community work. Working fathers and mothers and single working parents are common in our workforce. An extra Saturday off will enable them to attend to the specific needs of their children or spend time with their elders.

With the aim of reducing the pressure of Government employees and improving the quality of their family life, the Government has decided to introduce the five-day week initiative in the Government by phases starting July this year. The initiative involves a new schedule for our staff to work on weekdays and rest on Saturdays and Sundays. Upon the implementation of phase one of the initiative, we expect some 59 000 staff will work longer hours on weekdays while enjoying a long weekend. More may join the five-day week initiative in the second phase starting 1 January 2007 or the third phase starting 1 July 2007.

Not only do we consider the five-day week initiative a measure beneficial in the context of family relationship, but we also believe that in the wider context, a happy and fulfilling personal and family life is no doubt conducive to social harmony. Yet we have no plan to make five-day week mandatory in Hong Kong. We appreciate that individual organizations will have to carefully examine their mode of operation as well as deployment of staff when making a decision. Each organization of course has its own needs and considerations. I believe more and more organizations will adopt a five-day week arrangement as they realize the importance of work-life balance in motivating their staff and sustaining their performance. I understand that the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management conducted in February this year a poll on five-day week, in which a total of over 500 companies took part. It is encouraging to note that, according to the poll, over 55% of the surveyed companies did not require their staff to work on Saturdays except for job-holders of some special categories, 27% allowed their staff to take alternate Saturdays off, 13% required their staff to work on Saturdays, while 4% had shift duties arrangement.

We are well aware of the changes to our conventional mode of service delivery following the implementation of five-day week. Our service targets of six to seven million people, including our guests here today, might need some time to change their behaviour to adapt to the new pattern. For services which people expect to be available on Saturdays, some might cease to be provided starting from 1 July this year, and even more from January and July next year. Adapting to these changes will take some time. Since we announced the five-day week initiative, there have been voices of concern from the community and the media. Some are worried that essential services might cease on Saturdays. We know that a behavioural change can only be brought about through time. When deciding which services are to cease on Saturdays in phase one, that is starting from July this year, we have made a very careful selection. At this stage, we have identified public services that are not in great demand on Saturdays, services provided by back-offices and in-house professional and administrative services. Offices that provide such services will be closed on Saturdays starting from July. We shall also ensure that the overall level of government services will be maintained by extending the working hours on weekdays to fully compensate for the working hours lost on Saturdays. Alternative means of service delivery such as internet services, drop-in boxes and payment channels other than shroff counters will be made available or further enhanced to facilitate people's transactions with the Government. We will closely monitor the operation of these government services under a five-day week mode of operation and fine-tune the arrangement as necessary following implementation starting July.

Before making the decision to implement five-day week, we have studied the practices of various governments in the world. We notice that the governments of Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and many countries in Europe and the Americas, as well as the Mainland government, have already switched to a five-day week and provide only essential services on Saturdays and Sundays. According to our observations, the people of these places have adjusted well to this development through time. With a phased implementation approach and the complementary measures, I have confidence that the people of Hong Kong will also gradually accept the change. Five-day week is of course not the only means or a panacea to achieve work-life balance and there are many other measures worthy of our pursuit. However, we believe adopting five-day week is a step forward in the right direction. While many of its benefits may not be immediate or tangible, it would help us develop in the longer term a society that is not only prosperous and stable, but also healthy and caring.

Last but not least, let me again commend the Council and the participants of this conference today for your efforts in promoting, and more importantly, putting into practice the concept of work-life balance. I look forward to further exchanges with you on this meaningful endeavour. Thank you.

Ends/Thursday, May 25, 2006