Sruggle In the Absence of Legal Framework Hong Kong’s Experience in Collective Bargaining

Struggle In the Absence of Legal Framework
Hong Kong's Experience in Collective Bargaining

by Mung Siu Tat (Chief Executive, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions)


During British rule, the Hong Kong colonial government has long pursued the "non-intervention” policy.  Whereas in labor relations policy, the practice was applied through a "voluntary consultation” approach, which allowed employers to oppress workers with little regulations.  As the Government has refused to pass legislation on the rights to collective bargaining, most corporate would not take the initiative to communicate with the trade unions or recognize the official status of trade unions.
Although the Government has set up the Labour Advisory Board, but the method of election is decided by a "winner take all" approach through a "one union one vote” system, therefore all six labour representatives in the Board are monopolized by the pro-government camp.  Furthermore, the Labour Advisory Board is nothing more than a "political vase”, the Board possesses little or none authority to exercise the function of tripartite consultation.
Hong Kong's independent trade union organization has long been marginalized from the establishment.  According to the figures in 2011, the unionization rate in Hong Kong stood at 23%, however the coverage of collective agreements was as low as less than 3%, which manifested many trade unions were not able to play an active role in collective bargaining.  Some unions may appeal to workers through providing benefits or services, which make them becoming service-oriented trade unions.  Other unions with higher labour rights awareness might try to organize workers through "crisis intervention", for instance, the pursue of back pay, welfare cuts, or other labor disputes, which encourage workers to unite and organize in collective actions.  However, the resolutions to these actions are usually swift, thus it is difficult to transform such actions into organizational strength in the workplace.
In face of the marginalization and exclusion policies from the establishment, independent labour movement in Hong Kong develops into an unique type of organization, which has a more distinct and non-institutionalized social movements background.  However, the leadership in the HKCTU also realized that since organizational capacity in workplaces is weak, it would be difficult to employ strike or industrial action as a means of labour struggle due to the lack of mass support.  In addition, the "crisis intervention” approach is also a passive means in maintaining membership, as the number of labour rights violation cases is decreasing, trade unions also have to face the crisis in membership decline.

Analysis on Movement Strategy

For these reasons, the HKCTU launched a three-year plan in promoting the rights to collective bargaining in 2009 and the plan completed its first phase in 2012.  The plan will enter its second stage from 2013 to 2015.  In 2009, the HKCTU invited her affiliates to participate in the "The Fight for Collective Bargaining Conference”, during which, the "rural encircles the urban” overall strategy was drawn up ─ that is, to fight for the implementation of collective bargaining at the enterprise level, when public acceptance and consensus gradually matures, it might be able to force the government to pass legislation on the rights to collective bargaining.  This strategy in itself means that we should not passively expect the Government to legislate, but to engage ourselves in a "trench warfare” that relies on a bottom-up organizational strategy.
In response to the above strategy, the HKCTU has designed various measurable indicators to assist affiliates in assessing their progress.  These progression indicators can be divided into four stages, the first stage is the union rights to represent members; the second stage is the union rights to represents workers in labour negotiation; the third stage is the union rights to organize union activities in workplace; the fourth stage is the union rights to conclude collective agreements with employers.  Each stage contains a number of measurable indicators of progress so that affiliates would be able to comprehend the content.
Three models of struggle can be summed up from past experience in the struggle for collective bargaining, which will be laid out as follows:

1. Collaborating Labor Movement and Social Movement

The most prominent example of this model is the 40 day-long dock workers’ strike from March to May, 2013 which fought for pay rise and union recognition.  The docks involved were operated by HIT (Hong Kong International Terminals), the company was a subsidiary of the Hutchison Whampoa Group, which belonged to the richest Chinese on earth, Mr. Li Ka-shing.  Before the strike broke out, The Dock Workers Union has already been collaborating with student interns to conduct questionnaires and distribute handbills in the docks area in demanding pay rise.  Therefore, during the initial stages of the strike, left-wing activist groups LEFT 21 played an active role in organizing a large number of college students to support the strike; on the other hand, they also help coordinating 10 NGO’s to establish the "The Alliance of Hong Kong Community in Supporting the Dock Workers Strike.”
During the strike, the Alliance mobilized the public to boycott Li Ka-shing's retailing businesses (such as Park n’ Shop, Watsons and Fortress, etc.), in order to make use of public opinion and their consumption behavior to exert further pressure on the employers.  Meanwhile, the HKCTU set up a strike fund and was able to raise a total of HK $ 8.9 million from the public to support more than 500 workers during this 40 day-long strike.  As a result, the employers agreed to increase the salary by about 10%, but the strike failed to force the employers in recognizing the official status of trade unions and signing wage agreements with them.  Nevertheless, the strike has raised significant public awareness in support of the collective bargaining legislation and reveals the inhumane oppression applied by big corporations on out-contracted workers.
In the highly monopolized economy, workers and the public (both residents and consumers identity) are often faced with an identical source of exploitation ─ big corporations that monopolize our necessary commodities.  During the Dock Workers’ Strike, since the target of the struggle was Hong Kong's richest man Li Ka-shing, it was able to draw public resonance from those who also fall victim to the exploitation from the same consortium.  Such public involvement has transcended the strike from a mere labour dispute into a social movement.

2. The Application of International Framework Agreement

Another model is the cooperation with international unions, the application of an international framework agreement or corporate codes as an organizational tool, which opens up a new horizon for the fight for collective bargaining in local context. One example is the ISS cleaners organizational plan.  ISS is a worldwide company, specializing in outsourcing cleaning services.  ISS is the largest cleaning contractor in Hong Kong, which employ more than 10,000 workers.  In 2008, ISS and UNI Global Union signed a global framework agreement, whereas ISS pledged to respect and implement workers’ rights to form trade union regardless of her location of investment.  Thus, at the end of 2011, UNI collaborated with SEIU (USA Services Union) to support the Cleaning Service Industry Workers Union (HKCTU Affiliate) in Hong Kong to carry out the ISS cleaners organization plan.  Through the application of the global framework signed by ISS, union in Hong Kong is able to demand the management to grant union access to workplace to organize out-sourced cleaners in order to achieve adequate representation of a collective agreement with the employer.
In this organizational process, the cleaners union is able to take the initiative in a more systematic method of organization thank to the methodological training and personnel provided by the international trade union organizations.  This method is significantly different from the previous "crisis intervention" model.  The union sent three to four organizers to a hospital incessantly for a matter of months to conduct face to face interviews with outsourced hospital cleaners.  During the process, the union was able to collect contact information from more than 100 workers, and hence, exposed a number of issues and activists.  So far, one-fourth of the hospital cleaners joined the union, and among them, a core group of six to seven workers was established, which prepares to demand for a raise in pay subsidy.
Besides ISS, collaboration between local trade unions and international trade union organizations also include the Disneyland and H&M's workers' organization plans.
In concluding the experience of this model, as the employers are bounded by their commitment to the Framework Agreement, they tend to adopt a more neutral attitude toward trade unions in order to maintain their corporate image.  Moreover, trade unions are able to carry out organizational duties more conveniently by gaining direct access to workplace.  However, even with the Global Framework Agreement in place, the foundation of the bottom-up organizing approach is still irreplaceable.  Relentless efforts and endeavors are still necessary in order to raise workers’ recognition and motivation to join the union.

3. Establishing Stronghold in Enterprise Through Industrial-Based Unions

n the past, many of the Hong Kong's independent trade unions are organized by industries.  They often respond to emerging issues and involved in labor disputes that occurs in the specific industry.  The characteristic of such approach is its enormous organizational coverage, which can make the union more flexible to accommodate the employment mobility. However, due to the lack of organizing capability and strength in the workplace, the role of some industrial unions is limited to put pressure on the government only. In this case, industrial unions are very vulnerable and powerless when facing unequal labour relations within enterprises. Therefore, it is the HKCTU's policy in recent years to promote industrial trade unions to develop strongholds in enterprises (or crafts), hoping that this can be more effective in promoting the rights of collective bargaining.
Sustained economic growth in recent years brings considerable profit to big corporations.  However, employers are often denied a fair share of pay rise while bearing the heavy burden of high inflation.  By assisting and organizing workers to fight for pay rise, some trade unions succeeded in making a breakthrough by involving in labor negotiations.  The Construction Site Workers General Union have helped launched a 36 day bar benders’ strike, which was successful in fighting for a pay rise and eight hours of work; the Bar Bender Solidarity Union was eventually established as a result, and gained bargaining status with The Bar Bending Industry Association in the annual review of remuneration adjust.  Meanwhile, the Catering And Hotels Industries Employees General Union involved in a number of food and beverage companies workers' strikes, which assisted Nestle, Vitasoy, and Watsons established a corporate employee unions to support them to obtain the status of collective bargaining.
In general, enterprise unions tend to focus on labour relations and issues within their own company, and lack the labor and political vision in a wider context.  By utilizing industrial-based unions to organize enterprise unions can be a means to compensate for this deficiency.  However, if enterprise unions are unable to continuely promote social interest and fight for social justice and maintain cooperation with other trade unions, trade union solidarity will soon be weakened.


Labor relations in Hong Kong have long been dominated by the governance of "voluntary consultation”.  In the absence of the constraint of legislative framework, independent trade unions had to resolve to the "trench warfare” approach to fight for the rights to collective bargaining.  In one hand, the Hong Kong labor movement is conscious of the limitations and shortcomings of its over-reliance on the industrial-based organizational model; the leadership believe there is an urgent need to strengthen the capability of workplace organization in order to rectify the past by disregarding "crisis intervention” as the principal organizational model; On the other hand, independent trade unions have also taken advantages of the collaborations with social movements and international trade unionism, in order to seek a breakthrough under inadequate legal protection.
As independent trade unions are being marginalized both in labor relations and political establishment, strategically forming a connection with social movements and international labor movement may open up a new course to fight for the rights to collective bargaining.  As a matter of fact, rather than remaining on the enterprise level, progressive trade union organizations in Western Countries also advocate that collective bargaining should be expanded to face social and international aspects.  From this perspective, unions from around the world are echoing in a similar direction in constantly renewing their organizational approach under the challenges of neo-liberalism.