Hong Kong’s independent trade union movement face unprecedented suppression under the city’s draconian National Security Law (NSL), Hong Kong Labour Rights Monitor said in a new report, exactly two years since the Beijing-imposed legislation took effect.
“Hong Kong Trade Union Movement under the National Security Law: Two years into the authoritarian rule”, documents the authorities’ relentless attack to silence and criminalize the city’s once thriving independent labour movement.
Under the overly vague and broad definition of the NLS, the authorities have waged a campaign of repression, with union leaders detained, legitimate union activities restricted, and intimidation and harassment to force unions to disband.
The intention of the authorities is clear: it is to use the National Security Law to obliterate Hong Kong’s independent trade unions, and to smear all international solidarity between workers as “collusion with foreign forces”, isolating the popular labour movement in Hong Kong.”Mung Siu-tat, Executive Director of Hong Kong Labour Rights Monitor.
A Sword of Damocles over Hong Kong’s Trade Unions
Since the introduction of the NSL on 30 June 2020, at least 62 unions have been forced to disband; one trade union’s registration was revoked, and 11 union organisers have been arrested or charged. They include the former chairperson of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, Carol Ng Man-yee. She has been detained since March 2021. The National Security judge presiding over her case declined Ng’s bail application owing to the “international influence” of her trade union organising work. The lengthy pre-trial detention impedes the right to a fair trial and contravenes international human rights laws and standards such as International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The report highlights how the dissolution of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) follow the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook to crush the city’s independent labour movement.
First, state-controlled media outlets launched sweeping smear campaigns against trade unions leaders before coordinating with Hong Kong law enforcement to make high-profile allegations that the targeted union organisations may have violated the NSL. Then, the regime dispatched their proxies, acting as “middlemen”, to threaten and pressure union organisers and leaders disbanding their organisations.
Draconian colonial-era laws
The NSL is not the only weapon the authorities now use to silence Hong Kong’s labour movement. The research highlights that the Hong Kong government has also used various draconian sedition laws and other similar criminal offences, which were passed during colonial British rule, to target unions and their core members.
The plight of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, which was the first trade union to be disqualified and de-registered after the imposition of the NSL, is highlighted in the new report.
The union’s chairperson Lai Man-ling and deputy chairperson Melody Yeung Yat-yee were among the five union committee members arrested on the charge of “print[ing], publish[ing], [distributing], display[ing] and/or [reproducing] seditious publications” for their publication of the “Sheep Village” series of children’s books. They have been denied bail and have remained in custody since July, 2021.
The International Labour Organisation has repeatedly stressed that a democratic political system is essential to ensure the exercise of the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. As Hong Kong’s civil society endures unprecedented attacks, it has become extremely hard to organise workers to join unions nor activities to fight for labour rights.
Fight for survival
The report outlines three major challenges Hong Kong’s labour movement must overcome if it is to survive: the loss of experienced organisers, severe restrictions on union activities, and shortage of sustainable funds.
The sweeping and vague NSL has created a chilling effect. Union members face great difficulties in recruiting and retaining members. Some trade unions have been forced to cease operations because it is too risky to assume a formal leadership position in such a hostile political climate.
Labour activists are now fearful of undertaking legitimate activities – such as issuing joint statements. Other activities such as organising are now avoided as they are now deemed too risky and more easily be construed as violations of the NSL. Many union organisers said they suffered from mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and insomnia.
Trade unions face a funding crisis due to the imposition of the NSL. The Hong Kong government has incorporated national security requirements into the tax guide for charitable institutions and trusts, making it difficult for trade unions to raise funds to cover operating costs. Hong Kong labour unions are also prevented from collaborating with foreign and international organisations due to the legal risks posed by the “collusion with foreign powers” offence under the NSL, carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The government is also expected to introduce a requirement for people who apply for public funding to pledge allegiance to the government. This will make it difficult for local trade unions to apply funds to provide public services.
The fight continues
Without a robust trade union movement as the checks and balances to its governance, the Hong Kong government will further favour and incline to large corporations. Workers are thus more vulnerable to exploitation. Nonetheless, Hong Kong’s courageous labour activists are still standing up for their rights.
In the past year: dozens of Coca-Cola workers staged a strike against pay cuts; construction workers used trucks to block a construction site to protest against wage arrears; 300 riders of Foodpanda staged a 2-day strike and paralysed the delivery giant’s on-demand grocery service Pandamart.
Despite this unprecedented suppression, our comrades in Hong Kong are still fighting. They need your attention and solidarity. We are here to amplify their voices and seek international support for our brothers and sisters in Hong Kong defending workers’ rights,Mung Siu-Tat