The Hong Kong government is investigating whether the city’s famously long working hours are linked to employee deaths, after legislators raised the issue with the Secretary for Labour and Welfare.

Dr Law Chi-kwong was asked about the number of suspected cases of “deaths from overexertion” in Hong Kong by insurance sector lawmaker Chan Kin-por, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

Chan cited a 2016 census report which showed 11.1 percent of around 3.43m employees in Hong Kong worked 69 hours or more a week. “Around 32,000 [0.9 per cent] even worked 75 hours or more a week,” he said.

According to a 2015 survey by investment bank UBS, Hong Kong has the longest working hours in the world, with employees in the city clocking up an average of more than 50 hours a week – 38 per cent more than the global average.

By comparison, workers in Bangkok averaged 42.1 hours a week, and those in Taipei only 41.2 hours.

The study also found that Hong Kong workers received just 17 days’ holiday, compared to the global average of 23.

Chan noted public concerns about excessively long work hours triggering “various kinds of occupational diseases” including “sudden deaths” from overexertion. Japan and Taiwan already have definitions for “death from overexertion”.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK recently said its former worker Miwa Sado logged 159 hours of overtime in the month before her death in July 2013. A labour standards office in Tokyo attributed her death to karoshi (death from overwork), but her case was only made public by her former employer in October 2017.

Law said there were no local statistics on the topic because “sudden deaths caused by overexertion at work” had no precise definition in Hong Kong. He said it would be “very difficult” to determine whether workload or work pressure contributed to the sudden death of an employee.

“The causes of sudden death other than by work accident during employment are complex, and may involve a multitude of factors including personal health condition, heredity, eating or living habits, work nature and environment.”

He said the government engaged the Occupational Safety and Health Council to conduct a study on the possible link. The study began during the first quarter of 2018. “Depending on the outcome, the government will consider the next steps, including whether to define sudden deaths caused by overexertion at work,” said Law.

The Standard Working Hours Committee has conducted public consultations into the issue since 2013, and a legalised cap for working hours has been a hotly debated topic for years. Unions have called for a standard 44-hour work week, but the government’s current proposal is unlikely to meet their demands.

Trade unions have criticised the Standard Working Hours Committee's government-endorsed proposal for failing to protect those who have less power to negotiate.

The current government proposal says working hours should only be standardised for low-income employees and that employers should negotiate with their staff over working hours and overtime payments. All terms should be written into employment contracts. The plan is pending Legislative Council approval.

Committee chairman Dr Leong Che-hung said it was hard to get “employers and employees on the same page”.

“We all understand that the issue of working hours is a complex one that has always drawn different arguments. It is hard to get employers and employees on the same page. If it is not handled properly, this can harm their relationship,” he said.

“We have considered the rights and benefits of the workers. But at the same time, we cannot let employers and their companies suffer.”

A study carried out in December by APM shopping centre in Kwun Tong found that more than half of respondents hoped their working lives would improve in 2018. Long working hours and workplace stress were among the most prominent complaints.

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