Raise the bar: 16 years after the bar-bender strike

5 mins read

In the summer of 2007, more than a thousand bar-benders fought for their rights. The 36-day strike was the largest strike in Hong Kong’s history at the time. The workers successfully pushed for better pay and decreased working hours.

Yet, the significance of the strike extended well beyond these successes. The bar-benders turned a new page for the Hong Kong independent labour movement when they took to the streets. 16 years have passed since then, but the bar-bender strike remains as inspiring as ever, particularly at a time when the independent labour movement is facing unprecedented repression in the city.

36 days of strike: 8/8–12/9/2007

In August 2007, 200 bar-benders kicked off their 36-day strike with a mass protest outside a luxury apartment construction site in To Kwa Wan.

The bar-benders had been facing pay cuts since 1997 as a result of the financial crisis and the SARS pandemic. In 1997, a bar bender earned HK$1,200 for an eight-hour day of arduous work. However, in 2007, they only earned HK$800 for an 8.5-hour workday. The bar-benders demanded a modest pay raise to HK$950 per day, as well as a return to an eight-hour workday. However, the employers’ association, the Hong Kong Bar-Bending Contractors Association, rejected the workers’ proposal. The tone-deaf response from their employers was the final straw, consequently triggering a walkout.

The strike was first led by the bar-benders’ union affiliated with the pro-China Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU). On 13 August, the Hong Kong Bar-Bending Contractors Association proposed a gradual pay raise starting from HK$850/day and increasing to HK$950/day by the following year. The proposal fell well short of the demands of the bar-benders and negotiations broke down. Instead of supporting the workers, the pro-China federation asked the bar-benders to call off the strike. The striking workers were infuriated by the betrayal.

‘Strong enough to raise a steel bar but not a family’

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), on the other hand, remained a strong ally to the workers. They assisted striking workers in electing representatives for the strike and provided guidance along the way. At the peak of the strike, workers from over 80 construction sites had joined, effectively paralysing major construction projects in the city.

During the 36-day strike, the workers organised two protests, one with 1,500 participants and the other with 2,500. Original slogans from these protests such as ‘Go on strike, Persist to the end!’, ‘Bar-benders are Heroes! No Us, No Prosperity!’, and ‘Strong enough to raise a steel bar, but not a family’ are still widely used in workers’ strikes today.

‘Strong enough to raise a steel bar but not a family’. A bar bender holding a poster during the strike.

Raise the bar: For the industry and the labour movement at large 

The strike officially concluded on 12 September after 36 days of negotiation between the workers and the employers. The bar-benders were able to negotiate a wage increase to HK$860, around HK$10 higher than the amount proposed by the employer. However, the achievement of the bar-bender movement goes beyond just a wage increase. The striking workers also successfully called for a standardised 8-hour workday in the industry, and the movement itself brought bar-benders together to form an independent trade union to counter the HKFTU. The bar-bender union also established regular meetings with the employers to negotiate salary and benefits, which significantly boosted their bargaining power. In 2022, a skilled bar bender could earn HK$2,600 a day.

A model for future strikes 

A solidarity fund was established to aid the striking bar-bender in Hong Kong during the strike. It was the A solidarity fund was established to aid the bar-benders on strike in Hong Kong. It was the first solidarity fund ever set up in the city. Over 40 organisations joined together to form the United Front for Supporting the Bar-benders’ Strike. They took turns delivering petitions to various property developers, relaying the bar-benders’ demands. The strike gained significant traction in civil society locally and globally, made evident by the receipt of solidarity messages from trade unions around the world. The strike served as a model for the subsequent Dockers’ Strike and the Hoi Lai Estate Cleaners’ Strike that later happened in 2013 and 2017, respectively.

Persist until the end, the victory will be ours.

Lee Cheuk-Yan, former General Secretary of HKCTU

‘Persist until the end, the victory will be ours’. Lee Cheuk-Yan, the former General Secretary of HKCTU, first said this at a bar-benders’ rally on 19 August, when their employers were being deafeningly silent to their demands. Despite this silence, the workers’ persistence and unity brought them to triumph, which is a timely reminder, especially for Hong Kongers living under the authoritarian regime today.

] A bar bender on strike holding a poster with the slogan ‘Bar-benders have got the power’.

Timeline: 36-day Bar-bender Strike in 2007 

8 August           200 bar-benders gathered outside a construction site in To Kwa Wan, demanding a pay raise from HK$800/day to HK$900/day and a reduction of working hours to eight hours per day. The demands were rejected by the employers.

9 August           A rally with 500 participants, followed by 200 workers protesting outside the Government House while over 20 others marched into the office of the Hong Kong Bar-Bending Contractors Association.

10 August         600 workers marched to Central under a Signal 8 typhoon warning. The march was halted by the police. The workers then staged a three-hour sit-in protest at Yau Ma Tei MTR station.

11 August         300 workers blocked traffic on Queen’s Road and Ice House Street in Central after the then-Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung declined multiple meeting requests. Traffic was disrupted for three hours.

13 August         In the morning, the steel workers’ organisation, the HKFTU, started negotiations with the Hong Kong Bar-Bending Contractors Association. The association agreed to raise the daily salary to HK$850, with a further increase to HK$950 by the following August. The association also agreed to introduce a 15-minute break in the morning of each workday. However, the offer was rejected by workers and the talks broke down. The HKFTU then called the workers to disperse and end the strike, which led to them being accused of betraying the workers.

19 August         1,500 workers marched to the Central Government Offices.

20 August         A solidarity fund was set up and received public donations.

24 August         The solidarity fund raised HK$460,000. The 1,200 striking workers received HK$300 each.

25 August         Over 40 civil society organisations joined forces and set up the United Front for Supporting the Bar-benders’ Strike.

26 August         2,500 people marched to support the strike.

31 August         Negotiations resumed. The workers’ representatives walked out as no consensus was reached.

2 September     Workers organised a protest outside the Central Government Offices for the second time.

3 September     The protest continued. Workers gathered at the headquarters of the Labour Department in Sheung Wan before splitting up to three locations: the headquarters of the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong in World-Wide House; the Cheung Kong Center of CK Asset Holdings Ltd.; and Group, the head office of Hang Lung Properties Ltd., in the Standard Chartered Bank Building.

9 September     The then-HKSAR Chief Executive Donald Tsang mentioned the labour strike in a meeting with then-Chinese President Hu Jintao in Sydney, Australia.

12 September   A consensus was reached after a seven-hour negotiation between the employers and the workers. The daily wage was increased to HK$860, and the daily work hour was set at eight hours. The bar-bender strike officially came to an end.