Episode #1: Worked To Death
The video below has inspired me. The entire thing is in Cantonese so I will provide translation and commentary at the same time. Although the video specifically refers to those working in the accounting industry for the “big 4” firms in Hong Kong, it speaks to a larger culture of work habits that is ruining office work in the city. This marks the beginning of a series of posts on what I see as the decay of a city I once loved.
The piece begins with ex-“Big 4” accountants talking about how working overtime without* extra pay as considered the norm. Bosses would say to his subordinates “when I was in your position, I worked OT and I didn’t get anything, so why should you?”
It then moves to a soliloquy by an anonymous accountant who reflects upon why he is working to 4 in the morning on a regular basis. The important thing to take away from this is that there is no sympathy on part of the superiors, who think that this kind of life-ruining work style is a fact of life that they just have to deal with. The anonymous accountant goes on to counter the notion that their hardships are compensated by salary with the deterioration of his health and relationships with his families and friends.
The next ridiculous phenomenon that the video talks about is that office people stick around in the office to “OT” even if they don’t have work to do. To paraphrase, “to leave early means that either that person is lazy or isn’t competent enough for more work, therefore everyone just sits in the office, waiting for the boss to leave.”
It doesn’t stop there. It is here that I’d like to remind readers once again that working ethos like this is not limited to just the Big 4 accounting firms in Hong Kong; similar things occur in banks, ad, and property management firms. The video then goes through the lives of some who have since left behind their grueling Big 4 days, and talks about how during busy times, they’d inhale lunches and dinners to save time, eventually leading to stomach issues that cause them to take sick days.
Quoting part of a larger sentence, “if we want to leave early, say, 9PM…”
The ex-accountant then talks about the culture of OT as a given thing, that if a worker leaves on time, that means that he is not given enough work, therefore piling on more work. He also talks about how he used to work until 5am, go home, take a shower, sleep for an hour or two, then hop on a taxi and back to work at 9am. He aptly points out that their big-4 counterparts in the West achieve similar business without its workers working the same number of hours. As the video cuts to a montage of him leaving just after 6 and having dinner with his family, his mom talks about how she worried for not just his physical but mental health as well, that she wanted him to get out of this ‘hell’ of a work place.
The next segment of the video interviews another man who used to work in Big 4 firms, during which 70-80 hour work weeks were commonplace. He currently is working with other accounting firms to address the issue of overworking. This is intercut with the previous interviewee, who now has more time on his hands (in his Big 4 days he’s had to work weekends) to do the things he likes or finds meaningful, such as caring for rescued dogs.
The video ends with some chilling statistics: Hong Kong workers top the world in work hours; concurrently, a university study has found that 83% of those interviewed finds life in Hong Kong difficult.
I have never worked in a Big 4 firm and I have never worked 70 hours in a week (there are 168 hours in a week, IF you count Saturday and Sunday, that’s almost half of your entire week). But I have interned at an ad firm that required me to stay at the office until 2am for a couple nights. This happens, a lot, in Hong Kong. And the people, many of whom lack either the courage or the knowledge to speak up about the wrongness that has been bestowed upon them, suck it up day in and day out, eventually leading to irreparable health and social issues.
As a lead in to a future post: this type of work culture is not limited to the office work place in Hong Kong; it came from somewhere. The same type of people who run the accounting firms are the same ones who run the local education system. These are the people who believe more work for children means they become better test-scorers, which means better students. More on that later.
On top of shaky politics, mainland influence, a dying Disney (and the larger tourism appeal), a (largely) oblivious expat community, and a ruthless property-developing oligarch, the latter two of which make up the top >1% of the city’s population, the city to which I call home for two-thirds of my life is dying before my very eyes.
Feature piece by rthk31. Thanks a million, for you guys made a piece that has finally pushed me over the edge and start a series to talk about this from my perspective.