Summary of HKCTU seminar on “Linking the Past and the Future of Independent Labour Movement”

Mung Siu Tat
Since the founding of the HKCTU over 25 years ago, we braved out countless adversities and hardships along with the workers of Hong Kong to uphold our rights and dignity. Workers were able to find ownership in the labour movement as the establishment of the HKCTU ended the dominance of the Pro-Communist and Pro-Kuomintang unions.  For 25 years, numerous like-minded people fought and created a new era of trade union movement.  On 19th September, HKCTU commemorated her 25th anniversary with a series of functions, while a dinner gala was held at night, more than 100 people participated in the "Linking the Past and the Future of Independent Labor Movement ── Experiences in mainland China, Hong Kon,g and Taiwan" seminar during the day, and exchange their views and experiences.

Industrial Migration, Union Born at a Wrong Time?

In the first part of the seminar, sister Cheung Laiha and Brother Lee Cheuk Yan reviewed the roles of the Christian Industrial Committee (CIC), the predecessor of the HKCTU, in industrial actions and labour dispute interventions during the Seventies and Eighties.  Brother Lee noted that when he joined the CIC after his graduation from university, it coincided with a wave of industrial migration to Mainland China.  Many workers' salaries and severance pay were left unpaid due to factory closures.  Since the Pro-Communist unions had become more low-key and emphasis on "stability and prosperity" after the 1967 Riot, the CIC took the opportunity to actively involve in labour disputes and grievances.  He went on to reveal that many colleagues from the CIC gave him the nickname “Bloody Yan”, because whenever he could “smell blood" (wages in arrears), he would be the first to arrive at the scene.  But Brother Lee also lamented the Clothing Union was born at the wrong time as the garment industry was in decline, and many workers he helped to organize were subsequently scattered in different industries.
The General Director of the Retail, Commerce, and Clothing Industries General Union, Sister Cheung Laiha, was once an unpaid garment industry worker who seek help from the CIC and she share the experience of her transformation from an ordinary worker to become union leader.  Sister Cheung stressed that the CIC put much emphasis on shared responsibilities among workers and how it gradually cultivated autonomy awareness through carrying out subtle union duties.  Such were the seeds for the future development of independent unionism.

Unique Characteristics in Labour Organizations Across the Strait

The Hong Kong speakers were then followed by guest speakers from Mainland and Taiwan.  The coordinator of a labour NGO namely “Labour Education and Service Network”, Brother Chu Kong Wai, and Researcher from the “Kaohsiung Federation of Labor Unions”, Brother Tsai Chih Chieh, shared their organizational differences and similarities. Brother Chu stated that labour awareness in the Pearl Delta Region was significantly enhanced in recent years due to frequent labour actions instigated by factory closures.  Meanwhile, workers began to elect their bargaining representatives and fight for their legal rights in a more organizing fashion.   However, further study will be needed to examine whether the momentum of these labour actions in China is able to accumulate experience and transform into a sustainable organizational force like what it was in Hong Kong during the Seventies and Eighties.
As for the Taiwanese experience, Brother Tsai reported that since occupational trade unions were prohibited in Taiwan in early years, early labour movement was mainly restricted to an enterprise based model.  It was not easy for these trade unions to breakthrough the enterprise boundaries and expanded the labour movement in a broader spectrum.  Thus, a relatively well-established trade unions federation like the HKCTU has yet to be found in Taiwan.  Likewise, although labour actions are quite frequent in Mainland China nowadays, lack of connections between these actions poses similar challenges in breaking through the enterprise boundaries.  However, the HKCTU took a quite different path in her early development.  Since most of the HKCTU early affiliates were occupational based, they generally possess a broader perspective in labour and social movement, but in turn, lack the organizational and bargaining power in workplaces.  As labour organizational experiences vary from places to places across the strait, it is important that we should learn from each other experiences to further strengthen independent unionism.

Changes Will Come Along Only When Adhering to Principles

On this special occasion, 30 representatives from the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) – Asia Pacific Region, LO from Sweden and Lvis from Sweden etc. The IUF and HKCTU have deep relation tracing back to 1982 when the IUF and CIC worked together in the production of teaching materials and training courses to teach workers how to establish democratic and independent trade unions in Hong Kong. The Union Education Centre was subsequently established two years later. The Union Education Centre was the first independent trade union co-ordination centre in Hong Kong and her founding 14 affiliates were the prototype of the HKCTU. In his address, Brother Ron Oswald, General Secretary of the IUF, stated that he was honored that the IUF was the first international union to support the Hong Kong independent labour movement. If we did not adhere to our principles back then, we will not have the HKCTU today. In fact, the IUF also support independent labour movements in South Africa, Myanmar, and Egypt. The IUF always adhere to the principles of independent labour movement, and changes will only come along after years of persistence. Thus, despite under the tight control of the Chinese Communist Party, ACFTU is the only recognized trade union in Mainland China, the IUF will adhere to the same principles and support the mainland workers' freedom and rights to association; in believing that workers in Mainland will organize their independent trade unions one day.