Public hospital chiefs in Hong Kong will deduct the wages of around 7,000 employees who joined a five-day coronavirus-related strike in February, but have decided against any other disciplinary action.
The strike, which took place when Covid-19 cases first hit Hong Kong, was organised by medical workers who called on the government to close the border with mainland China, where the coronavirus was wreaking havoc, saying it was the only effective way to keep the epidemic at bay.
At the time, the city had reported 15 confirmed cases. The government had closed six of its 15 border checkpoints and refused entry to travellers arriving from Wuhan, the original epicentre of Covid-19.
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But it resisted calls to ban all arrivals from the mainland and fully close border checkpoints.
The strike, organised by the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, caused serious disruptions at public hospitals, forcing surgeries to be cancelled and the postponement of patients’ appointments.
On Friday evening, Hospital Authority (HA) chairman Henry Fan Hung-ling issued an internal notice announcing the board’s decision on the penalties to be imposed on the strikers.
“After thorough discussion at its meeting today, the HA board has approved the follow-up action to recover the wages overpaid to those staff in respect of their verified dates of absence from duty during February 3, 2020 to February 7, 2020,” the notice said.
“The board has also decided that there will not be any other human resources arrangement. The decision is based on the principle of being fair, reasonable and lawful.”
Fan said the board made the decision after considering legal advice, the Employment Ordinance, human resources policy, employment contracts and staff morale.
He said the sudden absence from duty of some staff in February had affected people’s confidence in the public health care system, and the strike also undermined the professional image of its workers.
“Hong Kong’s health care colleagues have high acclaim for their professionalism both locally and internationally … but in February, the public health care service was seriously affected due to the absence from duty of some 7,000 colleagues; some 50 per cent of elective surgeries were cancelled; services of both general outpatient clinics and specialist outpatient clinics were seriously disrupted and appointments for cancer and heart disease patients had to be postponed,” he added.
The authority had received several thousand comments, requests for help and complaints.
“As a responsible public organisation, HA handles the absence from duty cases in a fair, reasonable and lawful manner. After considering the legal advice, we issued a letter to all staff who were absent on those days in February, requesting them to confirm their days of absence and explain the reason. So far, we received some 7,000 replies,” the notice said.
Fan urged all staff to reunite. “We trust all colleagues will move on to focus on their profession and continue to take care of our patients and community … we sincerely hope that colleagues’ concerns are resolved and we will all unite together to cope with the public health care challenges ahead.”
Alliance members voted down a plan to extend the industrial action on February 7.
After the strike ended, the alliance, a union that emerged after Hong Kong’s anti-government protests last year, set up a fund on February 8 and called for public donations to support striking members if they were penalised. It also asked the authority not to impose penalties on the strikers, but the management made no promises.
The alliance said on Friday it needed to consult its legal representatives and members over the authority’s decision.
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