Companions under a stormy sky—Workers holding up umbrellas for democracy and livelihood
The strike led by college students, fighting for the democratic universal suffrage which Hong Kong people well deserve, was attacked by police with tear gas on 28 September 2014. Most of people woke up the next morning to find that Hong Kong was transformed. We were disconcerted by the rampant tyranny, yet be inspired by the courage of our fellow Hongkongers, as a line from Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” could possibly describe it.
To build a fair and just society, one's rights to participate politically, to improve people's livelihood in a democratic manner, regardless her / his background or class, is always crucial. The HKCTU newsletter has interviewed three workers with different backgrounds, to see if their stories in the Umbrella Movement might echo yours.
Accustomed to struggles, occupation as to safeguard livelihood
Interview with Ka-ho, an occupant from the real estate sector
Ka-ho, a strong guy working in a property agency, has been carrying a big backpack since Occupy Central kicked off. After work, he would go to occupied zones in Admiralty or Mongkok, where he stays till late or sometimes overnights. Inside his backpack, you can find a helmet, gloves, goggles, a mat, some war-game and hiking equipment he used years before. Since the last month, he has been carrying them to work everyday.
Ka-ho takes care of rental issues in a property agency. After graduating from a university, he joined a property agency, hoping to learn how the property market works. He was first working in the area of property management and later joins the rental department. “My main task is to rent out the properties of the company, by coming up with prices agreed by the clients.”
Pro-business government with ridiculous policies
The Umbrella Movement is all about genuine universal suffrage. Yet, the current electoral mechanism, i.e. functional constituencies and the election of the chief executive, is heavily skewed in favor of the real estate hegemony. How does an employee in this sector see such a contradiction? “There is certainly a contradiction.” Ka-ho admits. “Sometimes I quote a price and I feel it is indeed overcharging.” “I try to be more gentle to old customers. Sometimes they tell me they can't afford it and I will tell my supervisor, then s/he would recommend a milder rent hike.”
Working in a property agency, he earns HKD14,000 a month. After his contribution to the mandatory provident fund (MPF), he would be considered as not qualified to vote by CY Leung's standard. Ka-ho has followed the news closely, but the Umbrella Movement is the first one he truly participants. Since Leung's administration, “our society has become so divided. Many of those pro-government groups are being organized and we have never seen such a thing before.” His commitment is fueled by Leung's continuous lies, the pro-Beijing parties' attitudes, and Legislator Ng Leung-sing's forcible approval of the initial funding for Northeast New Territories Development Plan at the Finance Committee.
Resistance becoming a way of life
“Then it comes a realization: all this unfairness I have witnessed, is coming from an unfair system.” Undemocratic electoral mechanism which gives power to a handful of tycoons, who can only work out policies which are benefiting the rich. Quoting a daily-life example, he says, “as simple as buying a bottle of water, a small shop used to sell it for HKD2, but then the Link acquired the Housing Authority shopping centres, renovated them, and raised rents. This has led to local shops being pushed out, higher prices, and the dominance of chain stores within the estates. I can now only buy it from 7-Eleven and it costs HKD6 or 7 for the same bottle of water.”
The Umbrella Movement has left Ka-ho with deeper thoughts. In the past, he considered himself as a liberal and had serious reservations about legal minimum wages. “Time has proven it. The legal minimum wages have not affected the economy. Seeing it differently, with some 20 dollars an hour and 18 work hours a day, can one make the ends meet?”. “For pension security, any amount of the over-budgeted government project could be enough to serve as the Seed Fund of the universal pension scheme.” While some criticized the universal pension scheme would be unfair, Ka-ho says, “I might need it one day, or my mother, my family will need it. The current MPF doesn't help. It just sucks out our money.”
He give a quick and direct answer when being asked how he feels about the future of this Movement, “I will stay as long as this Movement needs me. We are out to demand something and so far, we haven't got any. How can we retreat? Hongkongers are very flexible, we can make occupying as a way of life. Once I had to go home immediately after work and I forgot how to do it, from office directly to home...”
Moral responsibility in troubled times
“Strike to support students”, Chow Kim-ho
It is not difficult to spot Chow Kim-ho among the students, aged and experienced, this some 40 years old stage designer states, “I am striking to support the students!”
“Strike for a better future”, from witnesses of Hong Kong's democratic movement
Before the HKCTU's call of a general strike on 29 September, Brother Ho has already started a personal strike to support this Movement. “The moment the students rushed in and took back the Civic Square on 26 September, I knew that there is still hope in Hong Kong.”
“The more civil participation, the more people would be concerned about democratic movement and keep an eye on government's governance. The social movement in the past decades has not achieved anything, even the June Fourth Massacre has only led to emigration. We are not going to lose this time.” Chow says.
Except for a few nights when he was sick, Brother Ho insists to stay in Mongkok with his “Shandong gang” in Mongkok. He told his employer, “I am not coming back to work before the occupation is over.” He is lucky enough to have an understanding employer, someone who has experienced the radical social movement in the 1970s, the first direct election in 1988 and witnessed the democratic movement in Hong Kong for over a quarter of a century. Being sympathetic to students, his employer gives him full support.
Keeping on struggles, taking back our parliament and future
Worried about the students? How about his own livelihood then? “The movement is initiated by students, it means they would have to pay a bigger price. For me, I have a family, my career and a home, while the students have nothing! They even run a risk of being prosecuted. Hong Kong is our home and we, the middle-aged, have at least some savings to keep us running, but how about the students? They need support from you and me, their fellow Hongkongers.” he explains. The future of Hong Kong might turn out like Brother Ho describes, namely, the younger generation is paying the price to realize justice and true democracy. Everything is possible.
Brother Ho jokingly describes his wages are merely above the legal minimum wages. Before the legislation of minimum wages, he can barely make the ends meet. “A whole generation has lost their dignity at work, this can't be compensated by the current legislation.” he recalls. The calls for a legal minimum wages were first heard in the 1990s in Hong Kong, but with the functional constituencies dominating the Legislative Council, the parliament of Hong Kong and serving the interests of the business sector, the legislation of minimum wages was only made possible in 2010. “We have to keep fighting, to retake the Legco is our only choice!”
Brother Ho is a chain-smoker, what are his thoughts behind all the smoke? Is it our future? Or the future of students who are sleeping soundly in the tents? “I have a son of my own, but many students here consider me as their father.” Brother Ho reflects. Each Hongkonger is responsible to change this city and the future of our next generation is in our hands.
The occupation might only last for a while, but resistance is a lifelong quest. The most beautiful moment of the Umbrella Movement is, it gives the whole Hong Kong a chance to think and reflect, when busy streets are paralyzed to give people the space to rethink about the ridiculousness of Hong Kong. Why should people work like robots but have no chance to enjoy life? Why economic development has left the grassroots