The founding of CTU: from the 1989 Democracy Movement to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997

Independent Union Movement at Crossroad

Upon the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong was bounded to rejoin China on 1 July, 1997. Beijing began the drafting and consultation process of the Basic Law of Hong Kong and a Basic Law Consultative Committee was set up. For the election of the members from the labour sector, the sector had coordinated a candidate list of seven people including Lau Chin-shek. However, just before the election, Lau was delisted by the pro-China camp. This incident demonstrated the Chinese Government’s tactic for the Hong Kong labour sector: unaligned factors were to be excluded. The proactive approach of the CIC of intervening in strikes, organizing independent unions and fostering democratization, was in stark contrast to the emphasis of “stability over democratization” of the pro-Communist Hong Kong Federation of Trade Union (FTU).

Beijing’s united front tactic posed a real threat in marginalizing independent unions. The issue was discussed in a conference organized by CIC in 1988 on “The International Industrial Secretariat and Hong Kong Independent Union Movement”. A motion passed in the meeting mentioned the concern that “in the transition period leading up to the 1997 handover, independent unions in Hong Kong will inevitably be drawn in the political process”, “unless they can develop common strategies and goals in response, and unite as soon as possible, they will be defeated one by one and workers’ interests will be compromised as forces weaken and unions absorbed (by the united front tactic).  The meeting agreed to set up a working group to plan joint efforts, including a common strategy for union education and ultimately to set up a coordinating body that unite independent unions.

The Birth of HKCTU

In 1989, students in Beijing took to the streets demanding democracy and crackdown on corruption. Workers in China also formed the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federations in support of the students. CIC was actively supporting the students and the Federation. Lee Cheuk-yan, as an organizer of CIC, represented the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China who brought Hong Kong people’s donations to Beijing and was briefly detained. The 1989 Democracy Movement ended with the Chinese Government’s bloody massacre of protesters. A large number of students and union leaders were wanted and jailed. The event caused grave concerns among the Hong Kong people, worried about the prospect of their liberty and human rights after the handover. It also accelerated the alliance among independent unions, with the hope of building a more resilient camp before the handover.

In 1989, a preparatory committee for HKCTU was founded and on the 29th September of 1990, HKCTU was officially established. There were 25 member unions representing 97,000 members. Lau Chin-shek was the chairperson of its first executive committee, Szeto Wah of the Professional Teachers Union its general secretary and Siu Yin-ying Michael of the Union of Hong Kong Post Office Employees its treasurer. Four directions were defined for HKCTU:

  1. Strengthen unions to fight for labour rights

  2. Protect human rights and foster democracy

  3. Partake in social issues for the interests of the grassroots

  4. Unite all workers in the world and foster international collabouration

In the 90s, the Colonial Government launched what would be called the Rose Garden Project, the building of a new airport, with an aim for a glorious departure. A large amount of migrant labour were hired; the rose garden turned out to be a sweat shop exploiting cheap labour. HKCTU intervened in several industrial disputes assisting these migrant workers from countries including Thailand and mainland China. Its efforts exposed the exploitation of the employment agencies involved and the negligence and indifference of the Hong Kong Government.

Migrant Workers at the “Rose Garden”

The first strikes of migrant workers from the mainland took place in November 1995. About 300 workers from Fujian who were building the Tsing Yi Airport Express Station went on strike to protest against withholding and deductions of salaries by the employer as well as by employment agencies. Ah Pin, one of the strikers, said an agency fee of RMB 65,000 was required to get the job, which he had to paid the fee on a loan borrowed at a 3% annual interest. He had been told by the agency before he came that his monthly income would be around HKD10,000 including overtime pay, while all transportation and food expenses would be covered by the employer. He arrived only to realize that these were all lies. He was paid HKD 4,500 only and hardy had anything left after paying for transportation and food.

The agencies were not only charging a steep fee, they also posted guards at the construction sites to monitor the workers and confiscate their identity documents. Some of the workers described this as being put on “Laogai”, reform through labour. As some of the strikers were threatened by the agencies, HKCTU organized them to protest to the Central Government Liaison Office to demand assurance that the agencies in the mainland would not interfere in the workers’ actions for recovering their salary and that the workers would not be penalized. Later, HKCTU together with the workers held negotiations with representatives of the employers at the Labour Department. The employers and hiring agencies then promised to return the withheld salaries and charge service fees according to the law in China.

Moreover, HKCTU distributed handbills to migrant workers at other sites and even smuggled into their dormitories and canteens in order to encourage them to follow suit. One group after another, the workers went on strike. Over 3,000 of them succeeded in recovering their remuneration with the help of HKCTU during this period.

The Structural Change in the Hong Kong Economy and Those Left Behind

At the dawn of the handover in 1997, the economy was enjoying conspicuous growth, with its real estate and financial industry entering an economic bubble. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of workers suffered from the structural changes in the economy brought by northward relocation of factories in the 1980s. Ironically, while this large population of workers was badly in need of new job opportunities, the Government imported about 40,000 workers from overseas, citing labour shortages and increase of wages as the reasons. In response to the unions’ call to stop importing labour, the Government introduced a tax to employers importing labour, the revenue of which was to be used to set up the Employees Retraining Fund. The Employees Retraining Ordinance was passed in October 1992 with 300 million seed fund allocated.

HKCTU Training Centre was established in 1994. At first, it offered only language and computer courses. But in 1998, as the economy faced a recession and the unemployment rate sky rocketed, the Training Centre began to provide fulltime placement-tied courses coupling job referral and employment consultation services. Through these services, HKCTU established meaningful relationships with individual trainees. Though being left behind by the economic restructuring, these individuals were resilient and strived in face of the countless obstacles they encountered in their own transition.

Trainee Chan Dip-mui’s story reflects the difficulties these workers faced. Chan had been a garment worker for over a decade before her employer relocated the factory to the mainland. Initially, she thought that since she did not have any other skills, she would just stay home and took care of her children. But as the Government began to import labour in the 90s, her husband also suffered from underemployment and thus loss of income. Chan needed to work again. As she shared: “I joined the retraining program, I attended many interviews and experienced a lot of discrimination because of my age and gender. Eventually I found an office job and thought I had escaped economic hardship. And yet, when the financial crisis came after the handover, again, it was us who had no education and no competitiveness who suffered first…”

Skill training itself was not a solution to employment crisis. The workers needed to organize themselves for policy changes. Besides skill training, HKCTU also educated workers about unions and their rights. The Training Centre provided a precious venue for HKCTU to communicate and organize workers. Previously, workers often came to HKCTU only when they were already in industrial disputes. With occupational training as the foundation, HKCTU moved on to recruit and organize trainees to form unions. Both the Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union and the Hong Kong Buildings Management and Security Workers General Union came to existence in this model.

Private Bill: a New Weapon for Labour Legislation

HKCTU was established at the time when the Colonial Government was offering more direct election seats of the Legislative Council before its retreat. HKCTU chairperson Lau Chin-shek was elected in the 1991 election representing CIC. In 1995, Lau resigned from the LEGCO in protesting against the Government’s position in the bill revision of the employee long service payment. The seat was then filled by Lee Cheuk-yan, then General Secretary of HKCTU, in a by-election.

In 1995, all workers in Hong Kong gained one more vote as Governor Chris Patten introduced nine new functional constituencies by occupational grouping. HKCTU, the Democratic Party and the Neighbourhood and Workers Service Centre formed an alliance and nominated six candidates to run in the new functional constituencies. The three candidates delegated by HKCTU ran for the groups “Manufacturing”, “Transport and Communication” and “Community, Social and Personal Services”. Four of the six candidates were successfully elected. Lee Cheuk-yan again secured a seat but the two other HKCTU candidates, Ip Kwok-fun and Siu Yin-ying Michael did not.

After the Handover in 19997, the Basic Law stipulates that any bill concerning Government policy can only be proposed with the Government’s approval, making private bills became largely ineffectual. In stark contrast, the Colonial Government allowed private bills to be proposed only when public spending was not involved. Chris Patten’s reform allowed the democratic camp to gain a majority in the LEGCO, thereby also making it possible to use private bill to force the Government to legislate for labour rights. From 1995 to 1997, HKCTU used this opportunity to put forth 16 labour reform proposals and successfully forced the Government to make concessions in some of them. For example, maternity leave pay and sick leave pay were increased from two-thirds to four-fifths and a clause on terminal payment was introduced to the Employment Ordinance.

Hong Kong Telecom Demonstrations and Cathay Pacific Strike

Soon after its establishment, HKCTU was involved in the industrial actions at Hong Kong Telephone Ltd in late March 1991. Without any prior consultation with the union, the company announced a major restructuring that would lay off 1,100 employees. Hong Kong Telephone Staff Association called for a march and a demonstration which drew 3,000 people. It queried the company’s joint consultative committee failed to represent the employees. In August 1991, the restructured Hong Kong Telecommunications ignited controversy again by ignoring the collective bargaining agreement signed with the Cable & Wireless (Hong Kong) Ltd Staff Association and changed its employment arrangements.

Another major industrial action was the 1993 Cathay Pacific strike. On 22 December 1992, three flight attendants who initiated industrial actions were dismissed. The act triggered wide-spread discontent. Over 3,000 flight attendants went on strike in January 1993 for 17 days in a demand for better working conditions. Over a thousand sat in outside the Governor’s House overnight. Cathay Pacific eventually conceded to the demands of hiring more staff and improving working environment, but it refused to reinstate the fired unionists. On 29 of that month, the LEGCO made a rare move. It passed a motion to request the intervention of the Governor and the Executive Council and to establish an investigation committee to look into the matter. Only then did the industrial action end.

Recovering the Lost Collective Bargaining Right

Seeing the lack of union protection in Hong Kong, Lee Cheuk-yan began to plan private bills to push for union rights reform as soon as he was elected as LEGCO Members. One was the Employee’s Rights to Representation, Consultation and Collective Bargaining Ordinance. It required the employer to recognize the union’s status in representing their members in grievances, to consult recognized unions (those that represent over 15% of the employees) for any changes in employment terms, and to negotiate employment terms with recognized unions (those authorized by over half of the employees of the company) to sign collective bargaining document. The rest of the amendments aimed at enhancing union autonomy; they mainly involved removal of unreasonable clauses in the Trade Unions Ordinance, for example, the prohibitions of registering cross-industry unions and utilization of funds for political use.

In June 1997, in an unprecedented act, the LEGCO passed the private bill on collective bargaining rights put forth by Lee Cheuk-yan. Unfortunately, the Bill was met with ferociously opposition from the business sector. Tung Chee-hwa, the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong, himself from the business sector, suspended the ordinance two weeks after he had assumed office. On 29 October, it was repealed by the Provisional Legislative Council, an organization that was not authorized by the Hong Kong people. Lee Cheuk-yan went on a 120-hour hunger strike in protest to call for the attention of the general public and international community. HKCTU, hence, launched a formal complaint to the International Labour Organization against the Hong Kong Government’s violation of the International Labour Organization Conventions. Upon investigation, the ILO expressed regrets on the Hong Kong Government’s repealing of the ordinance and urged for rectification. Notwithstanding, some of the amendments to the Trade Unions Ordinance remain in effect until now.

This immediate hostility towards union rights shortly after the handover preluded the challenges workers would face under this new era of Hong Kong, which is predominantly run by businessmen.

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