Luke Ching with Security Guards: Empathy Inspires Unlimited Possibilities for Labour Rights

Luke Ching with Security Guards: Empathy Inspires Unlimited Possibilities for Labour Rights

Michelle Wong Siu-woon

Artists and security guards, these two professions seem to be two parallel lines. What caused them to intertwine?

Artist Luke Ching (left) has been running a campaign to “fight for a chair” for security guards in the last decade. Recently, he escalated his advocacy in supermarkets and Wellcome, a major supermarket-chain in Hong Kong gave in. Mr Yim (right), known as “the chairman”, has been a security guard in the Hong Kong Institute of Education (hereafter: HKIE) for four years. He is a driving force in organizing security workers in the institute, which would become an affiliate of Hong Kong Buildings Management & Security Workers General Union.

These two men live very different lives, yet are united to fight for workers’ rights and now, they are telling us their stories.

A labour struggle triggered by a disturbed feeling

Luke Ching started to work with the security guards with his campaign “please give security guards chairs”. As an artist, he met and causally chatted with security guards at the Arts Museum everyday and became aware that a chair, for many security guards, gives them a sense of dignity. “Once I am grasped by this feeling, I can’t get rid of it”, he described. He then realized that not only security guards at the Arts Museum, but also in government buildings, cashiers in shops and many others, work without chairs. For Ching, art is to inspire feelings of others and his campaign, is indeed a form of art.

To enrich his experience, Ching became a security guard in a wet-market. Two workers took turns to do night shifts, two crates of soft drinks and a wooden board, was their place to rest. Ching loathed the dirty wall his “bed” was leaning against to. Yet, after a few days, he was too tired and surrendered. He witnessed for himself, how life can change a person, and entered the world of grassroots workers. In his observation, grassroots workers are used to their lives. They might complain to their friends about hardship at work, but they cannot name their demands. Workers suffer from aphasia at workplace, to their exploitators, as he described.

Grassroots workers would not fight back, until it is the last resort. Yet, if they do, they should make use of the opportunity. “Chairman” Yim said, the establishment of the security workers’ union at HKIE was triggered by the change of contractors. His previous employer lost the tender and almost 20 of Yim’s coworkers had disputes with the employer regarding severance payments. Thus, workers started to get in touch with the union and now they are starting to organize themselves. “Chairman” Yim is cautious about each move, “it is definitely difficult to organize, but workers are pragmatic, they would believe the trade union if they see actual achievements.”

Empathy to see workers as real people

Luke Ching recalled how he lobbied the major corporate, government departments to give security guards chairs. His long list of criticisms covered the backwardness of legislation, neglect of government, futility of workplace guidelines and government’s shameful practice of outsourcing. Yet, he does not like to translate his arguments to numbers, he fears the use of “statistics, median number” would play the trick to dehumanize the workers,. People might read the numbers and forget that workers are made of flesh and blood.

Security guards are not simply security guards. Many of them have other talents and come from very different backgrounds. Some were business owners, some were professional tailors. For example, “Chairman” Yim was a civil servant at the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. After his retirement, he went through some training and obtained the license to become a security guard. When his was working at HKIE, he organized gatherings for his colleagues and that was how he got his nickname. He observed, “security guards in the institute are mostly older workers, over 40 and 50 years old. The institute changes its contractor for security services every two years, so most colleagues see their jobs as short term employment. Thus, they tend to be quiet about their rights.” Recreational activities, are the means to keep them close.

To understand their thinking is the basic step to connect with them. It echoes Ching’s idea of “community as a method”. To advocate chairs for them, Ching first learns who they are: middle-age, who might need to take medications regularly, have a whole family to support, might get urgent calls from home anytime. For these workers, it is inhumane to make them stand and work the whole day without rest.

People are too used to judge people by professions, to see people as working machines. It is the empathy our society is lack of.

Workers after work to support workers at work, unlimited ways of connection

Luck noticed that in Hong Kong, even in the same trade, workers are isolated and seldom feel close to their coworkers. Without major incidents, it is difficult to get workers organized. According to “Chairman” Yim, there are about 100 security workers in HKIE, they work in three shifts in various locations in the campus, without recreational gatherings, they could not communicate.

As it is difficult to connect at workplace, Ching established a “Workers after work to support workers at work campaign” group at Facebook, to help workers find their common identity outside the workplace. Workers, even after work and outside their workplace, they would repeat their lives the next day. It is the same for professionals and grassroots workers, their nature is to earn their living through labour and at work, their autonomy would be exploited to a certain extent. Thus, workers should seek help from others. For example, HKIE’s security guards are supported by the student union. Security guards and student union meet regularly with the college management and security company.

Solidarity is an old word but not an easy word to practice. Ching’s cross-border experience, might inspire us to explore more possibilities in organizing unions.