Super Typhoon Mangkhut battered Hong Kong on Sunday. The government had done a pretty good job of preparing the city and its people for the approaching storm.
But it was widely criticized for not having declared an extra day off for workers on Monday given that public transport remained largely crippled as a result of the disaster.
Bus services were mostly suspended and the MTR was only operating partially. Also, vehicular traffic was in chaos as the roads were littered with fallen trees and other debris.
A large number of people – those living in the New Territories in particular – had to struggle to get to work.
The city relies heavily on the bus and metro rail systems. As early as Sunday night, bus operators and MTR Corp. had announced that they might not be able to resume normal service on Monday.
As such, the government should have gathered sufficient information to make a proper assessment of the situation.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor issued a statement on Sunday, calling “for employers to show understanding and flexibility in handling staff who have practical difficulties in resuming work”.
She insisted employers should make the call, rather than for the government to declare Monday as a non-working holiday.
The problem is, when such matters are left to employers, they simply have little choice. And this has much to do with Hong Kong’s economic structure.
Currently, around 20 percent of the city’s population works in finance and professional services. As long as the stock market and banks are open, employees in these industries have to come to work as usual.
The service sector accounts for about 16 percent of the jobs in the city, including retail, food and beverage, hospitality, etc. These shops are typically open for business even if the stock market and banks are closed during extreme weather conditions.
Why are they working so hard? Well, given the exorbitant rents in Hong Kong, most business owners cannot afford not to open for business even when the weather is poor or transport services are problematic.
And when most shops and restaurants are open, they need backup from the logistics and trade industries, which employ about 19 percent of the city’s labor.
So employees in these sectors also have to work regardless of the weather or road traffic situation.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 19
Translation by Julie Zhu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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