The rise of an independent labour movement: 
autonomous struggles after the 1967 Leftist Riots

1967 Leftist Riots: a Watershed of Labour Movement in Hong Kong

Lau Chin-shek was 16 in 1963 when he boarded a fishing boat that smuggled him from China to Hong Kong. He had little idea that he would become a unionist later in life, less did he suspect that over 20 years later, he would become the founding president of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). Lau was a student in China during the Anti-Rightist Movement. He witnessed how his teachers were tied up and criticized in struggle sessions. He was regarded as a “Five Black Categories” because of his family background and was not able to find a job after graduation.

Having escaped despotism, he fell right into the exploitation of capitalism in Hong Kong. Lau’s first job was as a quality controller in a garment factory in Tsuen Wan. The wage was so low that he could not afford breakfast and a more substantial lunch. He resorted to having only bread every three days and the rest of the days rice. During this period, he met many illegal child labourers. They were hired by using the identity documents of their mothers or sisters and typically worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with wages much lower than Lau’s.

In face of exploitations such as what Lau experienced and witnessed, there began frequent industrial actions fighting for the improvement of workers’ living and working conditions. These actions were faced with fierce suppression by the capitalists. “Trouble-makers” were sacked and the police often stood by to disperse and arrest union leaders during conflicts. With the police on their side, the capitalists were even more ruthless. As discontents deepened, a labour dispute in an artificial flower factory in San Po Kong finally triggered a vast social struggle, which was to be known as the 1967 Leftist Riots. Most participating unions at the time were under the controlled of the Chinese Communist regime. The struggle itself was heavily influenced by the Cultural Revolution taking place in China at the time. Social unrest turned into violent riots, many innocent people were injured. The general public and workers became skeptic of unions. Only a very few unions did not join the pro-China or pro-Taiwan camps. These included some independent unions formed in the late 60s. The Hong Kong & Kowloon Life Guards’ Union established in 1968, for example, insisted that their priority was their members’ interests and refused to join neither camp.

The pro-Communist unions were dealt with a big blow as the riots were put down. Many union leaders were exiled or jailed. With the downfall of the Gang of Four, Beijing also readjusted its policy toward Hong Kong. The pro-Communist unions took up a more moderate and low-key existence. As for the pro-Kuomintang unions, since the Kuomintang’s policy became increasingly bureaucratic, they were also losing touch with the mass. In light of these new circumstances, beginning in the 70s, more and more workers started to organize autonomous industrial actions for the betterment of working conditions, which were independent of these traditional camps. Workers of Tai Tung Textile Factory and China Light, and welders of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, for example, organized autonomous industrial actions after the traditional unions had failed to address their concerns, and gained wide sympathy and attention from the general public.

The Embryonic Stage of an Independent Labour Movement

During that period, neither the pro-Communist nor pro-Kuomintang unions could represent the working class. To fill this gap, several new organizations were formed aiming to support workers, who at the time had no support when facing industrial disputes. Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (CIC) was formed against this background in 1968. It was to become hugely influential in the early stage of Hong Kong’s independent labour movement and eventually to evolve to be HKCTU.

CIC was a subsidiary of the Hong Kong Christian Council. Aside from industrial evangelism within the church, it also published a periodical called Worker's Weekly. When Lau Chin-shek joined CIC in 1971, his first job was a reporter for this periodical, along with his colleague Leung Po-lam (Apo). Worker's Weekly reported labour strikes and court cases from the perspective of the working class. As it revealed the suppression of the Colonial Government and the limitations of the pro-Communist and pro-Kuomintang unions, it rendered great resonance among working class readers.

When Hong Kong established the Labour Tribunal in 1973, CIC extended its service to help workers in bringing their cases to court, as well as providing legal advice and support. A worker’s group and a center for labour education were also established to hold regular gatherings for workers to share their experiences and long-term promotion of labour rights education.

Into the 1980s, CIC handled an astonishing number of industrial dispute cases resulting from factories relocation to mainland China. Wages were often not paid when factories closed down. In 1985, 7823 cases were received, of which 6100 cases were related to dismissal, layoffs and arrear of wages. The CIC proactively intervened in these disputes. Whenever they got wind, they would go directly to the workplace to organize the workers and help them to elect representatives to negotiate with the factory owners. The Protection of Wages on Insolvency Fund did not exist then, so workers would insist in assembly until the owners showed up. CIC, thus, organized workers to occupy factories. Lee Cheuk-yan was at the time an organizer of CIC. “So many factories were closing down then. My approach was to organize the workers to block the bosses from transferring their goods. We often had to watch overnights. In several cases, we had over 500 workers during the sit-ins… The Labour Department did not intervene much in labour disputes. One time, a garment factory closed and the bosses ran away. We confiscated their goods until the consignor came with 300,000 cash to claim them. The amount was immediately distributed to the workers (to compensate the unpaid wages)”, he recalled.    

A Golden Age of Legistration for Labour Rights

Aside from crises intervention, another focus of CIC was to campaign for the improvement of the labour law. It might be said that the 70s and 80s were a golden age for labour law reform. The Employment Ordinance was introduced in 1968 but its coverage was very rudimentary. Many of those protections that are taken for granted today, including statutory rest days, paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, paid annual leave and severance payment, were the results of advocacies from CIC and other labour organizations during this period. The huge amount of cases handled by CIC became the foundation for its advocacy. CIC systematically analyzed these cases, created public pressure through the media, and formed alliances with other social movement organizations in order to gain wider support. Their efforts were persistent and the gains incremental.

Labour reforms during this period included:

1970 No pay and non-binding rest days

1973 Establishment of the Labour Tribunal

1974 Introduction of severance payment

1976 Introduction of statutory paid rest day of one day per week

1978 Introduction of 7-day paid annual leave, paid sick leave, paid maternity leave and compensation system for work injuries

1983 Increase of statutory holiday from 10 days to 11 days

1984 Increase of severance payment from 1/2 of monthly wage per service year to 2/3 of monthly wage

1985 Establishment of the Protection of Wages on Insolvency Fund

1986 Introduction of long service payment

Yet, faced with the Colonial Government’s undemocratic political system, CIC eventually came to a bottleneck in its advocacy for legislation. Some essential legislation for labour rights, e.g., legislation against unfair dismissal and universal pension, were vetoed by the Government. The labour movement started to have doubts about the Government’s “consultative democracy” and began demanding democratic elections with which workers could share power. Later, CIC and some independent unions joined the Joint Committee on the Promotion of Democratic Government, and took part in the 1988 legislative election together with other social movement organizations.

Union Education: Cradle of Hong Kong’s Independent Labour Movement

During the later stage of CIC, it began to reevaluate its limitation in organizing. At the time, many local organizations had their own worker’s groups. However, these groups tended to rely heavily on the social workers in charge and the resources of their attached organizations. Once their social workers left, they often found themselves unsustainable. The fact that members of the industry-based worker’s groups came from different factories also made it hard to coordinate corporate monitoring. CIC believed unionizing was the only way to achieve a breakthrough in the power imbalance in industrial relations.

In 1982, Lau Chin-shek, then director of CIC, was in Singapore en-route to Europe for a conference. The chance brought him to meet Ma Wei-pin, Asia Pacific Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food (IUF). The meeting proved to be a turning point for the independent labour movement in Hong Kong. China and Britain were negotiating the future of Hong Kong then and Ma expressed interest in supporting Hong Kong workers during this historical moment. A joint project between CIC and IUF was decided. The subsequent two-year union education project marked the first collaboration between an international labour organization and the independent union movement in Hong Kong.

The Labour Union Education Center established in 1984 was the first collaboration between IUF and CIC. At the beginning, the center focused on organizing workers in the food and beverage industry to form unions. Later, the support was extended to other industries. Its main objective was to provide education and training resources to independent unions. The center aspired to foster a new model of union movement in Hong Kong, which was one that would allow workers to participate in decision-making, establish internal democratic mechanisms, regular meetings and training, and transparent work progress.

This was drastically different from the traditional union organizing model in Hong Kong. The latter was based on relationships, socializing, materialistic assistant and welfare. For example, members were presented with gifts every year. Elizabeth Tang Yin-ngor was an officer of the center at the time. She recalled how a veteran unionist taught her that the most important ability for a union organizer was “to be able to weigh Chinese sausage by hand” – Chinese sausage being a popular gift to union members. “The big brothers decide for us all” was the decision-making culture. Changing the existing understanding and traditions of labour unions thus became the greatest challenge for the Labour Union Education Center.

The founding members of the center were 14 independent unions. Many of these are members of HKCTU until today, including Storehouses and Transportation & Logistics Staff Association, Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, Association of Government Technical And Survey Officers, Union of Hong Kong Post Office Employees, Hong Kong Social Workers' General Union, Mass Transit Railway Cooperating Department Staff Union (now Mass Transit Railway Corporation Staff Union), Federation Of Hong Kong Transport Worker Organizations. Later the center was directly involved in supporting workers to form their own unions, for example, Swire Bottlers Ltd. Staff Union (now Swire Beverages (Hong Kong) Employees General Union) and Clothing Industry Workers General Union (now Retail, Commerce and Clothing Industries General Union). The Labour Union Education Center became the first platform, which independent unions could exchange and learn from each other and as such, establish a solid foundation for the founding of HKCTU.

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