A New Way Out for Hong Kong's Struggle? Interview with ‘Defiant Stewardess’ Ng Man Yee, Chairman of Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Union

Author:  Wai Yan|translated from global.udn.com/

Ng Man Yee is one of the leaders of Hong Kong’s labour movements. Ng joined British Airways in 1992 as a flight attendant and established British Airways' Hong Kong Staff Union in 2003 in Hong Kong. Ng was nicknamed ‘Defiant Stewardess’ since she successfully called for 2,500 people to participate in a demonstration at the Hong Kong International Airport to protest CY Leung’s family member who abused her privileges at the airport.

‘In the past few weeks, I have been busy with the work of the new labour union wave. Although I am busy, I feel empowered.’ Ng Man Yee posted on her Facebook.

Ng is the chairman of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (hereafter HKCTU) and the first female chairman since the establishment of the HKCTU. Established in July 1990, the HKCTU is one of the largest union associations in Hong Kong. Up to now, it has 95 affiliated unions and represents more than 190,000 members. HKCTU emphasises autonomy and democracy, and trade union organizations should be held accountable to the workers and the people. They are on the pro-democracy side of Hong Kong's political spectrum.

Ng has a vigorous and powerful voice. She is one of the leaders of Hong Kong’s labour movements. Ng joined British Airways in 1992 as a flight attendant and established British Airways' Hong Kong Staff Union in 2003 in Hong Kong. Over the past 16 years, countless union actions and lawsuits have transformed her into a veteran labour rights activist.

In recent years, Ng has been best known for her role in ‘The Luggage Gate’ incident which involves the daughter of former Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung. In addition to successfully calling for 2,500 people to participate in a demonstration at the Hong Kong International Airport to protest against Leung’s family who abused privileges, Ng also won the judicial review case of the violation of the principle which dictates that the carry-on luggage should accompany the passenger and be inspected with the passenger in the incident, a principle that concerns flight safety. Since then, the title of ‘Defiant Stewardess’ has spread far and wide.

In November, the defence of the campuses of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University made the defiant front lose many militant demonstrators. After the District Council election, the number of both large-scale demonstrations, rallies and small-scale guerrilla-style road blockades have decreased. On the surface, Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Bill Protest seems to be subsided, however, there are many undercurrents surging beneath the surface. Faced with the superior force of the Hong Kong police and the arrest of more than 6,000 people, the Hong Kong people have changed their strategies and regarded ‘strikes’ as a new way out. Since the middle of November, a new wave of organizing trade unions has set off.

The movement has gradually turned from street battles to subtle struggles. I interviewed Ng between her busy schedule and asked her for her views on this wave of the establishment of trade unions and the role trade unions can play in Hong Kong’s new era. Below is an edited version of the interview. Ng was not engaged in the editing of the content.

Strike day on 2 Sept 2019

Q: There have been more people organizing unions lately. What is your opinion?

No one had foreseen this at the beginning of the struggle. For the trade union movement, this is a golden opportunity for large scale reformation since Hong Kong’s handover 22 years ago. What I meant by ‘reformation’ is that the trade unions have realised that they could play a more substantial role in social issues.

Previously, the establishment and participation of trade unions have usually concerned labour relations, labour disputes, labour conditions, and other issues involving the rights and interests of the working communities, but less on political issues. The Anti-Extradition Bill Movement has made it clear that issues related to one's own political rights are as important as issues related to workplace labour rights. What the trade unions can do are not only to protect salaries, benefits and working conditions. Rather, the trade unions also have a role to play in the discussion of political rights, the expression of one’s stand on political matters, and the protection of the dignity of the industries. Therefore, the trade unions must be engaged in political issues more actively.

Recently, there have been more people who have been organising trade unions in Hong Kong. This is a scenario that no one had expected at the earlier stage of the protest. The picture shows that during the 2020 New Year's Day demonstration, many trade unions called on people to join them during the demonstration. Photo courtesy of the author

Q: What is the significance of organizing trade unions to Hong Kong society? What is the impact on Hong Kong's civil society and the progress of democracy?

As far as civil society is concerned, I think this wave of organizing trade unions will change most people's perception of the influence of trade unions on community and social issues. In the past, most people thought that the labour movement was only concerned about labour rights and not very concerned about other social issues. Most people also think that what trade unions do do not related to them, so there is no need to support them in particular.

After the Anti-Extradition Bill movement, people started to have a renewed understanding of the role of trade unions in civil society and social movements, and started to think about what is the connection between the trade unions, the labour movement, and oneself; as a citizen, one can support the trade unions, the labour movements and strikes. Through this, one can express one’s own position. Trade unions provide a new way for citizens to participate in social activities. It brings about a very important change in promoting civil society and the democratisation in Hong Kong.

During the New Year's Day demonstration, a group pulled a banner of ‘trade unions against tyranny’. Photo courtesy of the author.


Q: The wave of organizing trade unions in Hong Kong seems to reflect the mobilization methods that we have not employed properly in the past?

That's right. There were some industries that were not accessible to the traditional trade unions in the past, such as the financial industry. But after the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement, in September, the Hong Kong Financial Industry Employees General Union was established. This indicates clearly that people in the financial industry have also awakened. It reflects that when Hong Kong's rule of law, human rights, and freedom face challenges, people want to do something to fight back.

In the seventh month of the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement, ‘the peaceful protestors’ do not dare to confront the police on the frontline but they do not want the ‘militant protestors’ to fight alone. [People start to ask] Would the large number of ‘peaceful protestors’ be able to push forward something? And what could be more powerful than strikes for peaceful protest? Therefore, people begin to think of ways of protest that are different from previous times which were mainly rallies.

A few months ago, without trade unions’ involvement, about 350,000 people participated in the August 5th strike. Imagine that if there were trade unions who organize and prepare for the action, the effect of the strike would be greater.

After the Anti-Extradition Bill movement, people started to have a renewed understanding of the role of trade unions in civil society and social movements. The trade unions provide citizens with a new way to participate in society. The picture shows a banner which writes ‘Let’s join the union’ in the New Year's Day demonstration. Photo courtesy of the author.

Q: What preparations are needed to launch a successful strike?

Successful strikes are based on two foundations: money and mobilising power. Money comes mainly from membership fees; by international standards, it usually costs one-eighth to three-eighths (1 to 3% ? ) of a member's monthly salary. The unions have to consider how to use these dues. In general, one-third of the dues is used as an emergency fund for strikes, one-third is used for daily operating expenses, and one-third is used for fiscal reserves.

In addition to money, the most important thing for a union is its mobilising power. If the strike is to succeed, there must be enough people. Does the union adopt a planned approach when recruiting new members? Is the union organized? These preparations will give members a first impression which is crucial. Whether the members trust the union can be shown from the moment they join the union to the first large-scale vote on a dispute or strike. To a large extent, whether the union can do well or not depends on whether it has won the trust of members when recruiting members.

When raising money and preparing for the mobilisation, it is also earning the confidence of union members. If you can't give others confidence, they will not act with you.

There is a slogan in Hong Kong that ‘When adults are willing to go on strike, children do not need to strike (in demonstrations)’. Whether we can make members go on strike on their own initiative depends on whether our preparations in advance are in place.

Q: The most important thing for a successful strike is the number of people mobilized, which depends on the level of unity and trust between people. How should unions promote such solidarity and trust?

Regardless of the size of the union, the most important thing is communication. Communication includes face-to-face communication, truly understanding the needs of members; organising activities that meet the needs of the members, bringing the members together, encouraging them to ask questions, and inviting members to participate in decision-making; informing members which other groups the affiliated unions are connecting with, and who do the unions support. This will allow members to see that the trade unions are operating, to contact the management of the trade unions and have meaningful exchanges, and to see that they have a role in the trade unions. Only through constant communication can we build true confidence.

Social media is easy to disseminate information, but it cannot replace person-to-person contact. Therefore, I often remind unions not to rely solely on social media, but to hold occasions where face-to-face contacts can be made, so as to confirm members' confidence in the union. Trade unions must not be lazy. They must work hard to reach out diligently to their members; only all-round, constant, frequent and appropriate interactions can promote unity and trust.

Ng Man Yee asserts that the unions should not only rely solely on social media, but must host occasions where face-to-face contacts can be made, so as to confirm members' confidence in the unions. Photo courtesy of the author

Q: It sounds like you are not too worried about the decline in energy in the seventh month of the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement?

I'm not worried. Although the movement has come to a bottleneck at the moment, there were 2 million people on the protest on June 16 and the District Council election on November 24 also has a 71% turnout rate. We have tried various means of resistance and have collected the energy to protest. We must use methods that have not been tried to let out this energy, and the workers' movement is one of them.

Over the past six months, although calls for strikes have been heard from time to time, those strikes were forced. So far we have not successfully launched a well-prepared strike. Imagine if we are allowed to prepare for a few months, explain and propagate to the public. Whether we can achieve the most ideal form of ‘peaceful’ resistance and force the government to respond depends on the preparation of the trade unions.

‘So far we have not successfully launched a well-prepared strike.’ says Ng Man Yee.

Whether we can achieve the most ideal form of ‘peaceful’ resistance and force the government to respond depends on the preparation of the trade unions.  The image shows Hong Kong’s New Year Day’s Protest. Photo of Reuters.

Q: As an experienced workers’ movement activist, what is your first advice for those who are interested in organizing trade unions recently?

Solid learning and trust in your own strength. No one is born to know how to engage in unions. It is all through learning and practical experience. So in addition to earnestly studying, you must believe that you can do it.

Q: Assuming that the strike cannot make the government concede, what can we do?

The government would not compromise in the beginning. The point is, how much pressure can people exert on the government? So far, the government has used the police to cope with the militant protests, thinking that it can dispel the resistance. The government had no experience in coping with large-scale strikes recently.

The Hong Kong Government really shouldn't think that Hong Kong people dare not fight protracted wars. The Anti-Extradition Bill movement is entering its seventh month. We are fighting a protracted war! If the government does not give in after we successfully put on a large-scale strike, then the strike will be extended! The movement has been going on for seven months. What will happen if it goes another seven months?

If the government does not change its attitude, it will face pressures such as rising unemployment rate and declining economic performance. If they don't want to be faced with this situation, the government must think about how to respond to people's demands.


On New Year's Day in 2020, the Civil Human Rights Front(CHRF) launched a demonstration entitled ‘Never forget, March Side by Side’, expressing the quest of the people of Hong Kong, which is, ‘five demands, all indispensable.’ CHRF notes that a total of 1.03 million people participated in the demonstration.

During the demonstration, the ‘Hong Kong on Strike’ and more than 40 unions set up street stands along the demonstration routes to recruit members and strengthen the organization of the struggle. However, at the beginning of the march, police barged into the stand of the Construction Site Workers' General Union outside the Southorn Playground in Wan Chai and arrested a volunteer of ‘Hong Kong on Strike’ for unknown reason. The riot police also fired pepper spray on other union members. According to ‘Stand News’, a police officer used a loudspeaker at the scene and stated that the police were investigating a case of possession of weapons. The unions issued a statement condemning the police for oppression.

‘Trade unions resist tyranny’, some groups pulled this banner in the demonstration.

2020 is a continuation of 2019. Time is passing, but we are still in turmoil.

My friend from Hong Kong told me.

With the advent of the new era, how far can unions and the movement go? It remains to be seen.