The civil society awakens: from anti neo-liberalism to anti legislation of the Basic Law Article 23

“Let’s Ride Out the Hard Times Together”?

The impact of the Asian financial crisis in 1998 after the handover on the working class in Hong Kong was just as catastrophic as the repeals of labour laws, if not more. As the economic bubbles bursted across Asia, the economy of Hong Kong regressed rapidly. The banks restricted lending, enterprises closed down and layoffs were frequent. The unemployment rate continued to rise from 1998 and reached 8.7% in 2003.     

For corporates and enterprises, the way to handle the financial crisis was to transfer the crisis to the workers. Measures like cutting back on manpower, salary and staff benefits led to the deterioration of labour relationships and conflicts. In September 1998, PCCW Limited announced a salary cut of 10% despite recording a profit of over 10 billion Hong Kong dollars. The union organized a 3,000-strong demonstration which forced the company to withdraw the plan. The Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company Limited implemented four salary cuts within one year and triggered a three-day strike. During this period, “ride out the hard times together” became the convenient slogan of employers and the Government alike. HKCTU in turn campaigned “against the transfer of crisis”. On 1 October 1998, HKCTU held a mass demonstration and march on with the theme “‘No’ to unemployment, ‘No’ to pay cut, ‘Yes’ to dialogue” to advocate for social dialogues as a solution to problems.

During this period, the role of HKCTU became that of a firefighter. Many workers whose rights were infringed reached out to HKCTU for help. But HKCTU did not stop at solving the workers’ immediate issues. Instead, it organized them for long-term protection. Various unions were formed as CTU participated in industrial disputes. The include: ASAT Limited Employees Union, Oriental Overseas Container Drivers Union, Seven Sea Chemicals (Holdings) Ltd Employees Union, TV Production & Broadcasting Industry Trade Union, Citybus Limited Employees Union and CSX World Terminals Limited Employees Unions, etc. But some of these unions could not sustain due to the high turnover of employees or company dissolutions while some sustained after transforming into industry-based unions.

Government Outsourced Workers Paid Hourly Rate of HKD7

Wages of low-income workers fell rapidly after the financial crisis, leading to ever greater disparity in society. Statistics show that the average wage of the poorest 280,000 workers had dropped from HKD4,900 in 1997 to HKD3,900 in 2003. It was not just those in the private sector who suffered from extreme low wages, Government outsourced workers shared the same fate as well. A news report in 2001 revealed the predicament of Yim, an elderly outsourced worker of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. Yim worked 14 hours a day at HKD7 per hour. Not being able to afford even a partitioned room, he resorted to make a public toilet his home. The public was scandalized by how public money spent on outsourcing had become the hotbed of exploitations from unscrupulous businessmen.

The Buildings Management and Security Workers General Union resolved to lobby Government Departments as their priority and succeeded in setting an example. In 2004, the Tung Chee-hwa administration was forced to introduce guidelines for wage protection. Government outsourced workers were to receive wages not lower than the median wage of the same job in the market.

Later, the union expanded its work to universities and other publicly funded bodies. It surveyed the wages at five universities to reveal wage exploitation, and partnered with student organizations in advocacy. With the slogan “conscience and social responsibility not to be outsourced”, they succeeded in making universities including the University of Science and Technology and the Polytechnic University increased the wages of the outsourced workers. Therefore, the legislation of minimum wage in 2010 was the cumulative result of gaining public support through the success stories with the Government bodies, the universities and other publicly-funded bodies.

Public Service Reform: Exploitation in Disguise

With a deficit budget looming, the Government took advantage the jargon of neo-liberalism and launched a so-called “public service reform”. Before the handover, the civil servants were credited for contributing to Hong Kong’s social stability. But as the economy took a downturn after the handover, they were criticized for lacking efficiency and flexibility. The Government attempted to use this narrative to justify the expansion of outsourcing and adoption of private company models, with which a large number of positions were converted to short-term contract employments. Its real intention was to evade responsibilities in public services.

Starting from 1999, the Government launched a series of reforms in civil service, these included the conversion of permanent contracts to temporary contracts, and outsourcing and privatization of public organizations. In 1999, the Government decided to outsource the Housing Department services. Over 30 unions from the Housing Department formed an alliance against the plan. In May 2002, the Government forced legislation to cut civil servants’ pay. In July 2002, HKCTU Civil Service Affairs Committee and Public-Funded Organization Unions Committee participated in a march initiated by the Federation of Civil Service Unions. Under the banner “‘No’ to legislation (for pay cut), ‘Yes’ to consultation”, the march was joined by 35,000 people and was the largest demonstration in Hong Kong since 1989.

Meanwhile, the Government had also hired a consultancy firm to conduct research, which suggested the privatization of several Government bodies. The suggestion was faced with strong opposition from civil servants unions. It was only after waves of struggles that the Government was forced to abandon the plan to privatize the Water Supplies Department and Survey and Mapping Office. In 2005, carparks and shopping centres under the Housing Authority were privatized as the LINK and put on public offer. A judicial review against the Government’s decision was unsuccessful.

Lump Sum Grant: paradigm change for social welfare and education

Social welfare and education were the next sectors to suffer as the Government adopted the so-called “Lump Sum Grant” in 2000. In 1999, the Social Welfare Department mandated that social welfare organizations had to “enhance productivity” by 5% between 2000 and 2003. In March 2000, CTU joined the Fighting for Social Welfare Alliance and initiated demonstrations against the Lump Sum Grant. While the Government claimed that the new policy was to enhance financial flexibility for organizations, the new policy in effect put a cap to the Government funding and helped the Government to evade its responsibilities in social welfare.

The Lump Sum Grant also affected grassroots workers in schools as the salary of non-teaching staff in schools was severed from the pay scale of civil servants. Many schools took the opportunity to outsource non-teaching positions or greatly cut down on non-teaching staff’s wages. Secretary Lui Yuk-gwei was dismayed and decided to organize a union. Lui criticized that the new policy not only had led to lower salary and employment terms but also more business-like management style. “Previously, school principals never bossed the staff. It was never a relationship of supervisors and subordinates. Everyone understood that we just had different responsibilities.” From the standpoint of basic human concerns, she was worried about the deterioration of human relationship created by privatization. She said, “Once jobs are outsourced, there will no longer be a sense of belonging. Staff will not ask about things they don’t fully understand; they will only act upon orders. Don’t expect that people will still care about the schools.”

After experiencing the drastic cuts of salary and benefits during the financial crisis, workers faced yet another crisis in 2003 when the epidemic of SARS led to a wave of layoffs and forced no pay leave. The neo-liberal policies adopted by the Government and big corporates had already put the society in deep discontent when the Tung Chee-hwa administration put forth a bill for Basic Law Article 23, a proposal that would seriously violate human rights and liberty. The accumulated discontents immediately transformed into a mass social movement. HKCTU and its member unions, from the position of protecting labour rights and human rights, were firmly against the Bill.

People Power against Artcile 23

In early 2003, HKCTU actively participated in the establishment of the Civil Human Right Front and has since been its core member. In stark contrast with the FTU, who was in support of the Bill, the HKCTU Social Affairs Committee mobilized her members in a petition campaign to protest against the Bill and published an open letter to illustrate her views on the matter in April. On 23 May, the Social Affairs Committee held a seminar on Article 23. Unlike other organizations, HKCTU’s discussions were focused on the Bill’s impact on union organization, industrial actions and supports to independent labour actions in mainland China. In the 1 July “Anti-23, Return Power to the People” rally, the CTU took up various organizing and logistical duties and successfully mobilized 6,000 members to join the march, including 130 unionists as marshals. CTU General Secretary, Lee Cheuk-yan, as one of the chief organizer of the rally, moved a motion in the LEGCO to call for the public’s participation in the rally.

Over half a million Hong Kong people joined the rally, and with that, turned a new page in the history of Hong Kong. It was 9pm when the last demonstrator finally reached the Central Government Office. Many of participants found that they could no longer return to indifference and passivity of the past. The meaning of the rally went far beyond the demand to oust Article 23. As the rally’s statement pointed out: “We love Hong Kong and everyone herein, therefore, we have the responsibility to fight for the future and the next generation. In this undemocratic political system, our task now is to stand firm on our position, be united, and strengthen our civil society, so to carry on our fight against the autocratic and barbaric regime.”

HKCTU handed out pamphlets during the rally to urge people to surround the LEGCO on 9 July. The massive outcries from the public instigated discord among the pan-establishment camp. Some from the camp withdrew their support, resulted in the withdrawal of the Bill by Tung Chee-kwa, who resigned soon after. The 1 July march marked a major political awakening of the civil society in Hong Kong. Since then, 1 July, Hong Kong’s handover day, has become the action day of Hong Kong workers and citizens for democracy every year without exception, regardless of circumstances.

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