Fighting for dignity and rights: from economic democracy to political democracy

Our Shoulders Can Bear Enormous Weight; But Supporting Our Families Bears Us Down

Having experienced the economic downturn after the financial crisis, the economy of Hong Kong gradually recovered since2004. Its GDP rose by 5% annually from 2004 and to that of $215,500 per capita in 2006, a record high since 1997. The unemployment rate also fell to 4.8% in 2006 from its peak in 2003. Big corporates and enterprises resumed their considerable profits and yet, workers’ salary and benefits had yet still to catch up. As a result, with high inflation, workers’ living standards deteriorated. The discrepancy between workers’ expectations for pay raises and the actual salary adjustments prompted another wave of industrial actions.

The bar benders’ strike in 2007 fired the first shot. By 1997, bar benders were receiving a daily wage of HKD1,200 for a standard 8-hour working day. Following the Asian Financial Crisis and the economic downturn of Hong Kong, the number of construction projects had dropped drastically and some of those in the bar bending subcontractors resorted to reduce the workers’ wages in their bids for construction contracts, a move much welcomed by major land developers. Thus, these subcontractors began to monopolize the industry as bar benders’ wages sank lower and lower. By 2007, they were only earning a daily wage between $500 and $600 while the working hours had increased to 8.5 or 9 hours a day. Their conditions showed no sign of improvement despite the economic recovery and prospering real estate industry.

The predicament of not being able to support their families despite their hard work is best depicted in a poem written by one of the bar benders:

Edifices built with blood and flesh

Iron melting under our sweat

Our shoulders can bear enormous weigh

But supporting our families bears us down

After the negotiation broke down in July 2007, the FTU affiliated bar bender union immediately urged workers to decide for themselves whether they should resume work and openly criticized HKCTU for inciting the workers. But such bigotry only incited more workers to join the strike. The strike lasted 36 days, with 3,000 workers took part at its peak. The enormous persistence and determination of the bar benders won them a daily wage of $860 and a standard 8-hour working day.

Wong Wai-man was one of the leaders of the strike. “If we still did not unite when the economy was good, bar benders would never be able to improve their positions. We were very united, because we had been exploited for so long and forced to accept undignified life and the treatments from the management. It was really hard on us,” he said. After the strike, Wong and other workers founded the Bar Bending Industry Workers Solidarity Union. The Union holds regular negotiations with the chambers of commerce. Between 2008 and 2014, they enjoyed an average pay raise of 10% per year. Their exceptional wage improvement in the construction sector shows what changes solidarity can make.

In July and August 2008, the beverage industry also witnessed another wave of labour struggle in pay rise. Transport workers of Vitasoy, Watson and Nestlé organized strikes due to issues including pay adjustment and commission structure. All three strikes speedily resulted in concessions from the companies and the workers winning their pay raises. Each of these strikes also resulted in a new union at the companies.

David and Goliath: The Dockers’ Strike

The 2009 financial tsunami disrupted the momentum of unions’ gains. During this time, most attention had been devoted to defending against violations of workers’ rights. But the 2013 dockers strike brought the Hong Kong union movement to the frontstage again, this time with wide international attention.

Like the bar benders, the dockers also fell victims to outsourcing by big corporates. The employer behind the subcontractors was Hong Kong International Terminals (HIT), which was owned by Hutchison Whampoa, the multi-national group that also owned ParknShop, Fortress and Watsons, etc. Li Ka-shing, the richest Chinese in the world, was its major shareholder. At the time, the HIT employed 3,000 workers, of which 1,000 were directly employed by the HIT and 2,000 were outsourced, but the working conditions of the two groups were drastically different. Directly employed crane operators received an average monthly salary between $19,000 and $20,000 on 6 to 8 hours workdays with an 1 hour recess in between. Their outsourced counterpart had to work 12 hours a day without being allowed to leave the crane – not even a toilet break – and earned in average $13,000 to $14,000 per month.

The situations of the freight handlers and checkers were even worse. Each shift was at least 24 hours and some would do consecutive shifts for even 72 hours. Their wages was reduced in 1996 and never picked up again even when the economy had recovered. As of 2013, their wages were lower than that of 1995. Labour literature writer Shum Man-king described their situation:

“The dock with the numerous contractors is like a pyramid, with workers always in the bottom and the layers of contractors sitting on buckets of gold, mined by the workers with their blood and sweat… Sitting on the very top enjoying this prosperity, he thinks this is his personal glory… But no! The cranes have to stop! The forklift trucks have to stop! The strike is on!”

The dockers against Li Ka-shing was like David challenging Golith except that, fortunately, they did not fight along. The dockers’ strike enticed wide public support. The strike fund organized by HKCTU received HKD8.9 million of donation within one month. With HKD100,000 as the largest single donation, most donations were all dribbled in by the general public in support of the striking workers. During the strike, social and labour activists camped alongside with the strikers outside of the dock. The makeshift settlement, known as the “Dock Village”, was set up by the Union of Hong Kong Dockers with the support and donations from the public. Later, some dockers moved their camps outside of the Cheung Kong Center in Central, headquarter of Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong Property Holdings Limited, to further pressurize the conglomerate. The public sympathy that the strike evoked was due not only to people’s pity for the workers’ predicament, it also represents the people’s growing discontent against the big corporates’ monopoly of everyday life.

Thanks to the strike fund that supported about 600 dockers, the workers were able to sustain the strike for 40 days and achieved a pay raise of 9.8%. The strike also demanded formal recognition of the union’s right to negotiation and the establishment of a negotiation mechanism. However, these demands were not met. It shows how the big corporations in Hong Kong are not willing to relinquish their privileges, least do they want to see unions empowered.

Next stop: Legislation for Minimum Wage

In light of economic disparity, it was even harder for low-income workers to get their fair share. The condition of the working poor deteriorated as the Government’s wage guidelines for outsourced Government serviced covered only a few tens of thousands of workers. Hundreds of thousands of low-income workers employed in the private sector were still left vulnerable. Many of them toiled and moiled every day but sill not able to feed their families. All they could do was to work longer hours for more income. The story of cleaner, Chan Kwok-tung, and his family was an example. After work from his full time job, Ah Tung part-timed in handling kitchen waste at a restaurant. Apart from working for 16.5 hours per day, he had another part time job at the post office on Sundays. Ah Tung’s wife also had two jobs a day as well. With these four and a half jobs, they could barely support their family of six. As Ah Tung lamented, “Working such long hours prevents us from fulfilling our parental responsibilities. But then it was impossible to support the family with just one job alone.”

In 2006, with an aim to collaborate with the civil society, HKCTU together with other civil society organizations founded the People's Alliance for Minimum Wage. One of the major strategies of the alliance was to expose the predicaments of low-income workers in the media. Thus, its member organizations would line up cases and actions one after another for media exposure. In August 2006 alone, there were two protests uncovering the HKD8.3 hourly wage paid by Kowloon Bus and HKD15 hourly wage paid by KFC. In mid-September, the alliance launched a 30-hour hunger strike to campaign for a minimum wage of no lower than HKD30. Amassing public support on legislation for minimum wage each day, symbolic figures from different sectors was starting to lend their support. For instance, Joseph Zen, then Bishop of Hong Kong, advocated “family wage” that would allow grassroots workers to support their families.

In 2010, then Chief Executive of Hong Kong Donald Tsang finally agreed to legislate for a minimum wage. The ordinance came into effect on 1 May 2011 at the initial level of HKD28 per hour. The ordinance marked the most important victory of labour legislation after the handover. The succeeding Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in his election platform promised to push forward legislation on standard working hours. Yet, once confronted by the opposition from the chambers of commerce after his inauguration, he showed no sign of actuating his pledge. A Standard Working Hours Committee was formed in 2013 but it fell short of making legislation its goal. The committee was fiercely criticized when it proposed “contractual working hours”. The public opinion was that it would only rationalize long working hours and would not help bringing work-life balance to employees.

“Unscrupulous Employers Should Not be Able to Get Away with It!” The Sentences On Anti-Union Discrimination

To subjugate workers’ collective actions, unscrupulous employers always resolve to union suppression, so that workers would be left without support. Coincidentally, there were two court cases related to the breaching of union rights in 2004. Carol Ng Man-yee, British Airways Hong Kong International Cabin Crew Association Chairperson, received a warning letter for an interview with the press. Meanwhile, four members of the Cleaning Service Industry Workers Union were fired by Wai Hong Cleaning & Pest Control, a subsidiary of the New World Development group for leading a claim for rest day wages. Not deterred by such repression, these unionists were determined to right the wrong and eventually sued the companies for discrimination against union members.

The convictions of these companies became the first precedent cases of anti-union discrimination. One of the fired cleaning workers, Shum Shik-ping said, though sacked for her activism, “I will continue to pursue the case, for these unscrupulous employers should not be able to get away with it”.

Migrant and Local Domestic Workers in the Same Boat

There are about 300,000 migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, mostly from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. Their situation is just as bad as their local counterparts are. In 2003 when the economy was bad, their wage was reduced by $400 by the Government, effectively paying for the newly introduced Employees' Retraining Levy imposed for hiring foreign domestic helpers. Like the local workers, their wages were not increased when the economy recovered. Following the wage freeze in 2004, their wage was only increased by HKD50 in 2005, a pay raise that was considered an insult by the unions. Migrant domestic workers had always demanded the abolishment of the levy and resumption of their wage level before the levy. With the assistance of HKCTU, they filed a complaint to the ILO, but it was not until 2013 when the levy was finally abolished.

In 2008, when Chief Executive Donald Tsang first announced the plan to legislate for a cross-industry minimum wage, news was spread that the eventual Bill would not cover migrant domestic workers. Government officials explained that migrant domestic workers were already protected by the Immigration Department’s minimum allowable wage and so the new minimum wage was not necessary for them. But the migrant workers’ unions argued that the minimum allowable wage was totally at the Government’s executive discretion and the workers no longer had any confidence in it. It had been brutally reduced before and the subsequent adjustments never caught up with the cost of living. Lee Cheuk-yan proposed to amend the Bill to allow a monthly-based minimum wage. Unfortunately, the amendment was voted down with only nine lawmakers supported it.

The levy and the exclusion of migrant domestic workers both demonstrates the Government’s discrimination against migrant workers. Also discriminated are their local counterparts. Local domestic helpers are excluded from the Mandatory Provident Fund, the statutory employee’s compensation against occupational diseases, and even some basic statutory protections under the Employment Ordinance as they are usually hired for less than 18 hours per week. Regardless of migrant or local, domestic work is not considered as part of the formal economy. Being in the same boat, migrant and local domestic workers alike decided to unite for power. In November 2009, the Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union together with five unions of migrant domestic workers held a domestic workers solidarity retreat, during which they formally approved the establishment of a federation. On 21 November 2010, six domestic workers unions representing workers from five different nationalities founded the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Union. This is the first cross-nationality domestic workers union federation in the world, a milestone in domestic workers organizing.

Anti-Outsourcing in Hong Kong under Globalization

“Non-interventionism” and “small Government, big market” have always been the key guiding principles of the Hong Kong Government’s policies. Indeed, these principles fit right into the neo-liberalism promoted by the World Trade Organization. Starting from the late 90s, Government Departments, such as the Housing Department, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, etc., had been outsourcing services and procedures to private companies, resulting in the creation of a large number of low-income jobs. Moreover, the privatization and outsourcing of Government services further expanded the market-led economy, which, in turn allows multinational corporations to invest more freely around the globe for exorbitant profits. The truth is, globalization is not a technological outcome nor economic law. Its real nature is corporate-driven.

In December 2005, the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference (MC6) was held in Hong Kong, instigated the massive concerns on free trade from local labour movement and social movement organizations. Hong Kong was a founding member of the WTO in the 1995. In 1996, it signed the General Agreement on Trade in Services with which it agreed to open its various services including telecommunication and banking.  Malicious competitions in the telecommunications industry immediately followed, leading to numerous layoffs as a result. Before the handover in 1997, the Government also signed the Agreement on Government Procurement, stipulating all Government procurements for goods and services had to go through international tendering. In return, large number of local positions were displaced by the import of overseas-manufactured modular and prefabricated buildings.

As free trade agreements directly affect the livelihood of Hong Kong workers, HKCTU aimed to draw wider attention and discussion by responding to the MC6. Many farmers and workers organizations around the world affected by the WTO came to Hong Kong to protest against the MC6, along with with other social movement organizations HKCTU founded the Hong Kong People's Alliance on WTO to coordinate and provide support for those overseas organizations. The most striking of the protests was that of over 1,000 South Korean farmers, which they mastered their strategies both in the tough ways, and the soft ways. On the one hand, they performed a solemn and compassionate procession in which they did a full-body bow every three steps; at the same time, they launched a highly coordinated confrontation that successfully broke through the police picketing. As the protesters stormed around the conference venue, the ministers from different Governments also had their own calculations. In the end, the Governments were not able to reach any agreement as the conference adjourned.

Nevertheless, under the influence of neo-liberalism, the outsourcing of Government services never ceased. A plan to outsource public swimming pool management was met by strong resistance from the Life Guards Union. In 2003, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) planned to outsource the management of eight public swimming pools. The plan was dropped when the union threatened to carry out industrial actions on the National Day. However, in 2005, news spread again that LCSD planned to outsource all management services of a new sports centre in Tai Kok Tsui, including swimming pool management and life guards. The union contacted the press and pointed out that outsourcing would degrade life guards’ working conditions, which in turn would affect their service quality and swimmers’ safety. After several rounds of petitions, the Department remained unyielding. Thus, strikes were initiated on 1 and 19 of August. Despite the strikes failed to change the overturn the Government’s decision, they demonstrated persistence and determination, which in return, forcing the Government to scrap all plans to outsource the services of other public swimming pools.

The anti-outsourcing campaigns also resulted in the establishment of various new unions. The Housing Authority in 2004 planned to outsource the uniform cleaning section of its laundry workshops. To unite against the plan, its staff founded the Hospital Authority Workers General Union. Meanwhile, staff of the Marine Department found the Marine Department Staff Alliance Branch under the Government Employees Solidarity Union, and organized a collective leave action to accentuate their concern on the department’s continuous outsourcing at the end of 2009. The struggle further extended to disciplinary units. The Hong Kong Police Force Telecommunications Technical Staff Union collectively took leave in February 2010 and protested at the Wanchai Police Headquarters against continuous outsourcing since 2004. In November 2013, workers of six public clinics were notified that their positions were to be taken up by a subcontractor and they would be transferred to other departments. Upon receiving their call for help, the Government Mod 1 Staff General Union launched a petition campaign and successfully forced the Government to call off the plan when over 300 signatures were received.

Also affected by neo-liberalism were workers from the social welfare sector. The Lump Sum Grant policy implemented from 2000 had driven the sector to operate in a more commercial model. Both working conditions and service qualities suffered from this change. Following the severance of the salaries from the pay scale of civil servants, many organizations were accused of withholding Government subvention and "fattening their top employees and emaciating their lesser one", which led to tensions in labour relations within organizations. In August 2005, 3,000 workers of the social welfare sector took to the street to express their discontent in the “Service Quality, Work Dignity” rally.  On 28 November 2007, in a very rare act in the sector, 3,000 welfare workers went on strike to demonstrate against the Lump Sum Grant, salary reduction, lack of resources and pay discrepancies among those in the same positions.

Commercial management models gradually expanded to other public sectors. University education too was not spared. In 2003, the LEGCO approved the detachment of salaries of the publicly funded universities from the civil servant pay scale and the immediate result was salary cuts. In 2004, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, citing subvention cut as the reason, proposed to cut the salary of cleaning and gardening staff by 30%, whereas professors and management staff only needed to follow the civil servant pay cut of 6%. It clearly was a selective exploitation on the lesser ones. After several rounds of protests and demonstrations by the affected staff with students supporting their cause, the university finally conceded and sharply reduced the cut. The incident led to the establishment of the Chinese University Employees General Union. In 2012, with the slogan of “enhancing management efficiency”, the Chinese University attempted to outsource the cleaning service of all its seven libraries clandestinely. The union united with several student organizations to launch a campaign against the outsourcing and successfully forced the university to drop the plan.

Another salary-related dispute took place at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Toward the end of December 2005, the university suddenly issued a notice to all teachers and staff announcing a reform of salary structure. All employees had to sign a new contract that severed their salaries from the civil servant pay scale, while those who refused to sign would be dismiss in 7 days. In the end, six employees refused to compromise and did not sign the new contract, which is known as “the incident of the six nobles”. Because of the resolution of the six and the solidarity actions of the Hong Kong Baptist University Faculty and Staff Union, the university eventually refrained from firing them.

The Founding of the Labour Party: Fostering Workers’ Political Participation

One of the causes of the social and economic inequalities encountered by the working class stemmed from the disparity in political power. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong and the functional constituencies are both elected by "small-circle elections" whereas most workers are deprived of equal voting rights. Under such circumstances, the business sector is ruthless in their obstruction of labour and social reform proposals. Thus, HKCTU on the one hand, endeavors to enhance workers’ capacity to participate in politics, while on the other hand, mobilize the mass to overturn the political system that favors the few elites. After years of discussions and formulations in HKCTU, the proposal to form a political party that represents the workers finally materialized in August 2011, when the Extraordinary General Meeting passed a motion “to support HKCTU in pushing for the establishment of a Labour Party, and at the meantime to encourage affiliate unions and members to join and actively participate in the Labour Party”.

Under such background, the Labour Union was founded in December 2011. Its establishment is not only a synergy of the workers solidarity, the Labour Party also collaborated forces from the social movement and the underprivileged. HKCTU General Secretary, Lee Cheuk-yan, was elected the first chairperson. At the founding ceremony, Lee affirmed that the Labour Party not only had to stand firm on the side of the workers, it also had to connect with the labour movement, to unite the workers to achieve collective power.

During the Legislative Council Election in 2012, the Labour Party was able to secure 4 seats. They are Lee Cheuk-yan for the New Territories West constituency, Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung for New Territories East, Cyd Ho Sau-lan for the Hong Kong Island, and Peter Cheung Kwok-che for the Social Welfare constituency. The establishment of the Labour Party suggests that the promotion of political participation of the workers would become the duty of the Labour Party, whereas HKCTU would focus mainly on promoting labour rights and workplace organizing. With this division of labour, HKCTU envisions that workers’ political participation can be developed in a more systematic and focused manner.

The Umbrellas of Democracy

In fighting for universal suffrage in the upcoming 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive Election,  “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” campaign was launched by the efforts of “the Occupy Central trio” in 2013. HKCTU fully supported the campaign and the subsequent Umbrella Movement, mobilized members and workers to put pressure on both the Central and SAR Governments. On 31 August 2014, the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) announced the nomination method of the 2017 Chief Executive Election. It imposed many restrictions that would certainly exclude candidates not favored by the regime. These restrictions include: 1) the nomination authority would rest solely upon the 1,200-member Nominating Committee, predominantly controlled by the businesses and pro-status quo organizations. 2) Each candidate must have the endorsement of at least half of all members of the Nominating Committee in order to participate in the general election ; 3) The Nominating Committee shall nominate only 2 to 3 candidates.

The public reacted vehemently against the 2014 NPCSC Decision that brutally ruled out the possibility of genuine universal suffrage. The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) launched a student strike in protest against the “8.31 decision”. A letter to all Hong Kong citizens was issued on 11 September stated: “Today the students lead the strike to start the first wave of a non-cooperative movement. This is to wake up call for the society, for the death bell of our city has already rung! As tertiary students, to continue our classes as usual and turn a blind eye to the current social crisis would be neglecting the expectations of our society and deserting our social responsibilities as Hong Kong citizens. Therefore, students must temporarily leave the classroom and engage in the social movement to save Hong Kong from its doom.” On 22 September, over ten thousand university students gathered on the mall of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Representatives from different institutions spoke on the stage vowing to safeguard the city.

During the later stage of the student strike, HKFS and Scholarism, a high-school student body, moved the assembly to the Government Headquarters and called for the participants to reclaim the “Civic Square” that was once unjustifiably sealed off by the Government. The arrests and detentions of various student leaders led to an even larger demonstration in support of the students. Along with 20 organizations from the civil society, HKCTU formed the “Joint Alliance of Civil Disobedience in Support of Students” and urged citizens to gather at Admiralty in support of the students. On 28 September, tens of thousands of citizens broke through police barricades and occupied the main roads of Admiralty. The occupied zones were later spread to Causeway Bay and Mongkok. Unfazed and infuriated by the 87 tear gas grenades fired by the police on the same night, more citizens took to the streets in protest.

On the night of 28 September, HKCTU passed an emergency motion to call for a general workers’ strike in protest of the Government’s violent oppression of the democratic movement. This was the first ever political strike initiated by HKCTU since its founding, while affiliates such as the Professional Teachers' Union, the Social Workers' General Union, Swire Beverages Employees General Union, Union of Hong Kong Dockers and Disneyland Cast Members' Union responded to the call. On the morning of the strike, over 300 members of the Swire Beverages Employees General Union participated in their Emergency General Meeting with more than two-thirds of the members voted for the motion to strike, which was a genuine realization of union democracy.

The Occupy Movement enticed much attention from the international media and was widely reported especially during the early stages. Over 30 unions and international union organizations from different regions launched a petition campaign in support of the Umbrella Movement. Furthermore, as a demonstration of international solidarity, delegates from the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Association (IUF) and the Swedish Food Workers' Union (Livs) came to Hong Kong and visited the occupied zones to lend their support on the movement.

From late-November to mid-December, the police carried out operations to forcefully remove and arrest protesters from the occupied zones. Subsequently, leaders from various political parties and organizations including the HKCTU’s General Secretary, Lee Cheuk-yan, Vice-chairperson, Alex Kwok Siu-kit, and Chief Executive, Mung Siu-tat, were arrested by the police in a high profile manner on charges of participating, organizing and inciting illegal assemblies.

Unfazed by the risks of being arrested and prosecuted, over 200,000 students and citizens participated in this mass civil disobedience movement.

“Despite the Umbrella Movement has yet to realize its immediate goal, the yellow umbrellas and ribbons had already sowed the seeds of democracy in different corners of the society.”

The democratic movement in Hong Kong has entered a new era of resistance with self-determination. Having gone through 79 days of Occupation Movement, the younger generation is now politically awakened, whereas the authorities can no longer rule by old approach. Yet, in face of such a tenacious conservative regime, it is conceivable that genuine universal suffrage may not be attainable in the near future. The public needs to be prepared for a prolonged struggle. Regardless, HKCTU anticipates that this newly enlightened political awareness will one day transform into organizing power that foster workplace democracy, with which, a broader foundation will be laid for the democratic movement in future.

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

Epilogue: Can dripping water penetrate stone?