Challenge to Monitor Labour Conditions as Business-Government Collusion Assaults Civil Society
Since 2014, HKCTU has been observing the operation of Hong Kong-invested enterprises in China closely. To expose the labour exploitations and the related collective actions in these enterprises, HKCTU released two “Monitoring Report on Collective Labour Disputes of Hong Kong Enterprises in China” (hereafter: Monitoring Report) in 2015 and 2016 respectively. The project continued in 2017 and on 29 December, the latest Monitoring Report was released. It does not cover only the Hong Kong listed companies' investment in China, but also the repression of civil society and the development of labour movement in China in the past years.
Monitoring Report 2017 indicates, over 70 % of the collective actions (17 out 23) in Hong Kong-invested enterprises were caused by dismissals, factory relocation and factory closure, and most of them took place in small/medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) with a workforce of under 1,000 workers. This phenomenon is caused by the so-called industrial upgrade in the coastal provinces in recent years, leading low-end manufacturing enterprises to move into inland provinces or relocate to Southeast Asia. According to a research of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, currently “Small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs) still form the majority of Hong Kong manufacturers in the PRD, with over a half of them making an annual turnover of HK$ 50 million or less.... A considerable number (about 20 per cent) of the surveyed Hong Kong manufacturers with an annual turnover of over HK$100 million have invested, established factories and set up sales departments in provinces outside Guangdong and in Southeast Asia. This shows that only when a manufacturer has reached a certain scale that it can have enough resources to explore markets outside the PRD and promote production expansion or relocation.”. In just a few years, the number of foreign-invested (including Hong Kong-invested) enterprises has decreased from 20258 (2008) to 13380 (2015).  As a result, most of the collective industrial actions of the past years took place in large-scale enterprises during the relocation process and now, as most of the large-scale enterprises have gone, collective actions are taking place in SMEs. Such a change is also recorded in the Monitoring Report 2017: while the number of collective actions remains stable (23 in 2017 and 25 in 2015), the number of affected workers decreases sharply (150,000 in 2015 and 10,000 in 2017). It means that the labour conditions in Hong Kong-invested enterprises have remained unchanged, and the decrease of affected workers simply indicates that the wave of factory relocation and closure is now hitting workers at SMEs. The usual cooperate misconducts, such as dismissals, relocation, missing wages, unpaid severance pay and social insurance premiums are still daily reality for workers in Hong Kong-invested enterprises.
Another development is seen that since the crackdown on labour organizations in Guangdong in December 2015, labour organizations have been put into limbo, their operations are obstructed and their existence is endangered. As Lee Cheuk-yan, General Secretary of HKCTU pointed out at the press conference, in recent years, the Chinese Government revised its regulations to tighten public's freedom of expression and right to know on one hand, and develop new laws to restrict the source of funding of civil society on the other hand. Laws are now being used as a tool to retaliate workers' leaders and civil activists, such as Meng Han and Lu Yuyu. The government and employers are working closely to either divide workers who are fighting for the same cause or directly “settle” the disputes with violence. Under this background, labour rights are frequently and deeply violated.
HKCTU concludes that that labour rights, especially grassroots workers' rights, are often the first to be sacrificed when capitalists and the authoritarian regime work together. Thus it urges the Chinese Government to immediately stop repressing civil and labour activists, to respect the three fundamental labour rights; it also calls the multinational companies to monitor their subsidiaries or suppliers, to ensure they would obey local labour law. MNCs, as the final owners of products, should also bear the responsibility and compensate workers when their suppliers fail to do so.
. Made in PRD Study:Hong Kong Industry: The Way Forward, Federation of Hong Kong Industries, Website: https://www.industryhk.org/upload/news/attachment/fb03706932c6044b6c5169d03a05a87a.pdf
. Monitoring Report on Collective Labour Disputes of Hong Kong Enterprises in China, HKCTU, Website: http://www.hkctu.org.hk/cms/images/userfile/file/2015-16%20Labour%20Rights%20Violation%20Report_Chi_Final.pdf