HKCTU E newsletter NO.9: The Unionists for Change

The Unionists for Change

In its history of a quarter century, the HKCTU’s most impressive image to the public might be its banners and slogans.  But behind the scenes, it was the each and every one of the unionists who wrote the history of 25-year independent labor movement in Hong Kong with their live stories.
To commemorate its 25th Anniversary, the HKCTU organized the Ever-fighting Unionist Award in honor of the outstanding unionists who brought changes to lives to the workers and the labor movement.  The independent panel selected 5 Ever-fighting Unionists from 13 candidates.  The panel was comprised of Professor Christine Fang, Faculty of Social Sciences, the University of Hong Kong; Ms. Mak Ying –Ting senior journalist; Mr. Choy Chi-Keung Ivan, senior lecturer of Department of Government and Public Administration, and Mr. Lee Cheuk-Yan, General Secretary of HKCTU.  
The latest HKCTU News covered abstracts of interviews with the 5 awardees (full interview reports are available on HKCTU Facebook Page).  Their stories shared common themes: selflessness, perseverance and camaraderie.   Let’s enjoy the light shed and warmth brought by their stories.

A reader by the dock – Chan Yan Wo

Chan is called by his friend as “White-head” for his signatory white hair.  In shirt, shorts and canvas shoes and carrying a cloth bag, White-head Chan looks like a literary youth.  The young White-Head Chan had been a primary school teacher for 3 years, before he become a worker at the dock and then a union leader.

Becoming a docker

Chan was born in a family of workers, and the Red Little Book of Mao Zhe-Dong used to be his daily read.  Upon his graduation, Chan joined the Pu Kiu College with passion and ideals.  After a few years as a teacher, Chan resigned from the position and started his career is internal design.  When he set up his contracting company in home renovation business in the 1980s, Chan’s business flew with the economy.  In the 1990s, Chan’s business started to plunge with the transition of economy.  In 1994, Chan changed his career again and become a checker at the dock due to family reasons.
After working at the dock for 1 year, Chan was caught in a labor dispute.  “That was the first time I heard of HKCTU.” said Chan.  Dockers faced worse treatment after the incident with cut in head-count and salary due to downturn of economy.  In 2005, dockers launched a campaign to dun the sub-contractors for salary for holiday.  Chan took up the banner when the person supposed to hold the banner did not show up, and that started his path to union movement.  When the financial storm overwhelmed the world in 2008, dockers’ salary was lower than 1996.  Chan realized that a stronger leadership is needed in the union.  He started to connect the workers and built the union core members gradually.

Camaraderie in union movement

In March 2013, the longest labor dispute in Hong Kong since 1970s broke out at the dock.  The veteran Chan talked about the heartless employers and furious workers with calmness.  But tears ran down from his face when he recalled memories of a brother in arms for many years.  This fellow worker was diagnosed with cancer before the strike was launched, and he actively participated in union activities despite his health condition for the welfare of the workers.  He passed away before the strike was launched.  Chan’s favorite story from his readings was a Buddhist story:  Long time ago, a fire broke out in the forest.  The parrot tried to put out the fire by wetting its feather and sprinkled the water on the fire, knowing that this would be of minimal use.  The parrot’s perseverance moved the gods and a heavy rain saved the forest.  “I am not waiting for a savior.  I would rather be the parrot, do as much as I can and influence others,” said Chan.  Over the years, the Union of Hong Kong Dockers has grown from around 30 members to nearly 500 members.  This is something that the White-Head Chan has been working for.

A Pair of Working Hands - Bo Lai-Wan

It would probably be the domestic workers to save you from the nightmare of a dusty home.  Bo, the vice-president of Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union, got a pair of magical hands that saved many families from nightmares.  But it was not without price for Bo.  She could not pass the e-Channel at the immigration because her finger-prints are so blurred, long-term intensive labor work has caused permanent joint pain and muscle strain.  Despite all the sores, Bo thanks the job for connecting her with the union, and making her from a “chicken” to a female union leader at the front.

Holding Banner with Shaking Hands
Bo became a live-in domestic helper since 17, and became a domestic worker at 27, a few years after getting married and having her first child.  Being a domestic worker is a lonely job and you are on your own when facing labor dispute or household accidents.  When the HKCTU set up the Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union in 2001, it was the first time for Bo to witness the power of union.  A group of women workers, led by the union executive, went to negotiation with the agency because two domestic workers were coerced into signing a self-employment contract and lost their insurance and fringe benefits.  “I had little idea of what we were doing.  I was literally shaking when I was holding the banner,” said Bo.  The action eventually ended with the agency signing employment contracts with the two women workers again.  Bo, the young woman worker who has joined labor movement for only one week, thought to herself, “I do have power!”  
In 2005, a union member hurt her lower back at work but the employer did not accept the responsibility.  The member was so worried that the medical expenses would be a huge burden to the family that she killed herself by jumping off from a building.  Bo said they have proposed the government to set up a centralized work injury compensation fund with major contribution from the government.  But the proposal was suspended with no timeline.

Family is No Longer “Anti-politics”
Being a union leader, Bo sometimes might have neglected the family.  But in 2003, Bo’s husband who used to dislike politics joined the Anti-Clause 23 march.  “He used to say I was a trouble-maker.  I felt so touched seeing him joining the march,” said Bo.  Bo’s children were less supportive to social movement compared to her husband. It was not until the Umbrella Movement last year that her son gave a hand when Bo was distributing Chinese dessert with other union members.  When she had to leave in the mid of a family holiday trip to support the movement, her son-in-law said, “You have your destiny.”
Bo said she probably would still be an ordinary housewife who keeps mouth shut on injustice.

Defying Fate for 20 Years—Cheung Lai-ha

Often working until midnight, Cheung Lai-ha, the general secretary of the Retail, Commercial, and Clothing Industries General Union (RCCIGU), is always the last to leave office.  Lai-ha joined the union 20 years ago and often bemoans her lack of education, “most women, who are fifty years of age like I am, had to start work and helped out the family when they were little.  I am one of the exception to work as a full time unionist.”

Started Sewing at the Age of 14
Lai-ha has four sisters and brothers, “when my siblings had gone to bed, I would help out my mother at night.” during the sixties, many factories outsourced their garment productions.  Thus, a lot of women chose to work at home so that they can take care of their families, “my mother sewed, while I trimmed and sewed, and......napped.” Cheung's mother passed away when she was in elementary school.  So she had borrowed an ID card from a senior to work in a garment factory and worked for 20 years since then.  She started with menial duties in the factory as a child apprentice (child labour who were still in their formative stage and not familiar with the production.  The factory only provided meals in place of wages), “but I don't like these kind of work, I really craved for sewing” she would later proclaimed.  So Lai-ha started to learn tailoring when she was 14 and started to make clothes for her younger sister.  “I love to make shirts and blouses and I could make clothes for my 12 years old sister when I was 14 years old.” She said with pride.

Went to Court Five Days a Week
From the early nineties, industrial migration began and factories closures became frequent.  “Non payment of severance pay and wages were very common.”  Cheung was elected as the president of the RCCIGU in 1991 and would eventually become a full time union organizer the next year.  During its height, Lai-ha would have to go to the court five days a week and handle two grievances per day.  “All the secretaries and judges in the court knew me.”  She remembered accompanying a group of workers to protest in front of their boss's home by coach, “some female workers had lived and worked in the same neighborhood their whole lives.  For many of them, that protest was the first time they left their neighborhood.”
As the garment industry has now almost disappeared nowadays, “maybe it is time for the garment industry to accept their fate,” but not Cheung Lai-ha.  In recent years, she even start organizing the insurance industry.  However, people are less willing to join the union due to individualism.  “I am tired!” she bluntly stressed, “I am ready to retire one day.”  But before that day comes, she will continue to make more people understand, “solidarity can make a change!”

Driving the Route to Struggle——Chung Chung-fai 

Days in, days out, people rushes on and off buses without knowing their bus drivers; but Chung Chung-fai is a familiar name within the labour movement circle, “Everybody in First Bus knows Brother Fai.”  The president of New World First Bus Company Staff Union (NWFBCSU), Chung Chung-fai lives up to his reputation by defending the rights of his colleagues undeterred for 17 years.

Awaken by the gunfire in Tiananmen
On the day of the interview, Brother Fai just finished his shift from 0600 to 1500 on route 116, “the shift is good, it is favourable to union duties,” he claimed.  And it all started from 36 years ago, when Hong Kong was still looming over the shadow of a recession, “It was not easy to find a job and I just got my driver's license, so I gave it a go in the bus company, and this is where I am now.”  But the comforts in stability was eventually disturbed by the gunfire of the Tiananmen Square and spontaneous strike for pension reformation initiated by the CMB employees in 1989, the incompetency of the FTU and TUC drove Brother Fai to make a stand and fight.

The “Pipe President” Took a Risk
In 1998, when First Bus took over CMB's franchise, Chung Chung-fai also set up the NWFBCSU.   Battles after battles, the union's firm stance in defending workers' rights saw the membership rose from less than 100 to more than 1,200 nowadays.  “Eight industrial actions in five years, it was really wild.”  The media named him the “Pipe President”, because he likes smoking his pipe while coming up with strategies for the union.  In 2003, the company planned to replace the year-end double pay with discretionary bonus after SARS.  The union decided to fight against it.  On Brother Fai's insistence, the union won the battle.  “I thought we had to take the risk and intimidate the management.”  The company gave in and eventually reached an agreement with the leftist union on restoring the year-end double pay even before the industrial action started.
As working conditions continue to improve, the union planned for succession as early as 2006 and there will be post-90s members taking over as board member next year.  Meanwhile, Brother Fai still spends a lot of time talking about politics with his colleagues during his monthly visits to different terminals, “I would tell them there are much more in life than making a living.”  In daily life, Brother Fai comes across with all sorts of people as a bus driver. “There are people who wouldn't pay for full fares while there are some who would feel ashamed for paying 10 cents short.”  Meanwhile, he is also grateful for the support he received from his family, “I consider my wife supporting my position when she does not say no.”  Asked if the veteran will fade out from labour movement when he retires in two to three years, Brother Fai replied flat out, “of course not, my brothers will kill me.”

Fearless of Storm——Wong Wai Man

The reminiscences of the dockers strike of 2013 may still be on the horizon, but as early as 2007, there was another strike that was parallel in terms of magnitude and length—the 36-days barbender strike.  The incumbent president of the Bar Bending Solidarity Union, Wong Wai Man (Ah Man), was an activist during the barbender strike.

Proud to Fight for a Life-Saver
Ah Man has started become a barbender 30 years ago.  In 1997, a barbender's salary was $1200 per day.  However, their wages started to slump from 2000 until it had gone down to as low as $700 to $800 per day.  When the wages could go down no more, employers began to extent working hours by half an hour to one hour per day.  Strike was inevitably broke out in the August of 2007.  Ah Man could still recall during the first rally when typhoon no. 8 was hoisted, he volunteer to be a marshal and dealt with the police, “I was the only Marshal on site” he said tongue-in-cheek.  After the rally, Ah Man was elected as one of the workers representative and they were able to fight for a pay rise to $860 per day and an 8-hour working day was restored.  Subsequently, the independent Bar Bending Solidarity Union was established, and they are now able to negotiate with the employers on wages annually.
After years of experience in negotiating with the employer, Ah Man finds it most rewarding in fighting for the introduction of a 15-minutes morning break time.  Since it was difficult to perform manual labour under hot weather,  there were cases where workers suffered from fatal heat stroke.  This 15-minutes morning break time may seem trivial, but for many workers, this can be a “life-saver”.
Passionate with His Wife
In appearance, Ah Man is perhaps a very tough guy, but he can be very sensitive in front of his wife.  When Ah Man was divorced in 2000, he was caught in a low due to a broken marriage and economic difficulties.  But he was fortunate to have met his second wife from community work.  Under the encouragement of his wife, Ah Man was able to regain his confidence.  He said his wife is really passionate about social affairs, and they both held the same beliefs.  During the Umbrella Movement, they were both actively involved in logistic duties in the occupied zone and Ah Man was among one of the arrestees in Admiralty.
Ah Man was educated in school run by church when he was young, so he was deeply affected by the Christian value of “equality”.  “If I am the only person being exploited, it is not a big deal at all because I am a very easy going person.  But if a large group of people being exploited, I will definitely stand up for it.”  Does it worth it?  Ah Man just smiled and reiterate his motto, “it is more blessed to give than to receive”.