Christopher Siu-tat Mung, Executive Director, Hong Kong Labour Rights Monitor
A year ago today, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) passed its dissolution in a General Meeting, ending its 31-year history.
The regime can destroy an organisation, but it cannot destroy the beliefs and values that the organisation represents. What the HKCTU represented was not only its 100,000+ members and 90 affiliated unions, but also the spirit of the independent labour movement, a spirit that was sown 31 years ago and took root in the soil of Hong Kong over the confederation’s history. After generations of continuous endeavours, it has awakened countless Hong Kong workers.
Worker autonomy: free from regime manipulation
For nearly half a century, the labour movement in Hong Kong was largely monopolised by trade unions representing both the pro-Communist China and pro-Kuomintang Taiwan camps. Consequently, many people inevitably associate trade unions with the interests of either political camp. In addition, having experienced the riots of 1967, many Hong Kongers grew even more disenchanted by trade unions, as they saw that trade unions were commanded by the regime to inflict unnecessary casualties on innocent people. Thus, it is even more admirable to foster an independent labour movement against the background of such circumstances.
The emergence of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (CIC) and other labour organisations supported by Christian churches after the 1967 riots gradually replaced the roles of traditional trade unions from both political camps. These newly established organisations provided services to workers in need and later assisted workers in organising trade unions. Meanwhile, the white-collar labour movement in Hong Kong was starting to take root in the 1980s, and teachers, social workers, medical staff, civil servants, and other employees of different occupations began to establish their own trade unions. Gradually, Hong Kongers would see trade unions from a different perspective, realising that forming a trade union does not require pledging loyalty to regimes. The establishment of HKCTU in 1990 marked a milestone in the convergence of the aforementioned two independent trade union forces.
Labour protests: workers taking their fates into their own hands
The HKCTU has been involved in workers’ struggles over its 31-year history. Every hard-won victory, big, or small, demonstrates a belief that workers have the power to bring about changes to their own lives.
The most well-known examples include the 2007 barbender strike. As a result of the strike, the trade union successfully brought the chamber of commerce to the negotiation table for salary talks every year. To this day, the salaries of barbenders are still the highest in the construction industry. In 2013, dock workers in Hong Kong staged a decisive David and Goliath battle. After a 40-day strike, the workers brought a global conglomerate down to its knees and achieved a nearly double-digit pay rise. More importantly, the strike forced the employer to improve long-standing inhumane working conditions at the docks. The ten-day strike by the Hoi Lai Estate cleaners triggered a wave of labour unrest among fellow cleaning workers in other housing estates, forcing the government to introduce an contract-end bonus and revise salaries pegged to its outsourcing policy.
There are more examples of struggles that cannot be listed. Through the intervention of HKCTU and its affiliated unions, unfair treatments in the industries and workplaces were successfully remedied.
Labour law reform: dripping water wears away a stone
The HKCTU also actively promoted labour law reform and played an advocacy role both inside and outside the Legislative Council (Legco). The fight for many of today’s labour protections, such as the statutory minimum wage, the cancellation of MPF offset, the increase in statutory holidays, paternity leave, etc., was led by the HKCTU and other civil society organisations after years of advocacy and continuous struggle. What was required in these struggles was perseverance and determination, like water dripping away at a stone.
The HKCTU was at the forefront both inside and outside the Legco, and witnessed its transformation from the colonial era to the post-handover sovereignty era. From 1995 to 1997, owing to Governor Patten’s political reform, was possibly the only time in history that the pro-democratic camp held a majority in the Legco and was able to pass legislation through private bills. The HKCTU seized this political opportunity and joined with other pro-labour pro-democracy lawmakers to force the government to make several labour law amendments, including an increase in maternity and sick leave pay from 66.6% to 75% of the normal salary, and introduced the provisions of unreasonable dismissal into the Employment Ordinance.
On the eve of the handover of sovereignty, the General Secretary of the HKCTU, Lee Cheuk-yan, submitted a bill on the right to collective bargaining in Legco in the form of a private bill, which was successfully passed. However, it was subsequently suspended and later repealed by the SAR government before the law could come into effect.
After the handover of sovereignty, the legislative power of the legislators was significantly undermined. The HKCTU could only turn to the streets to fight for minimum wage legislation. Together with other grassroots trade unions, labour, and civil society organisations, the HKCTU launched wave after wave of struggles to fight for wage increases in low-paid jobs including government outsourcing posts, universities, subsidised agencies and other low-wage industries. The campaign gathered strength with every hard-fought victory. After 12 years of struggle, a citywide statutory minimum wage was finally achieved.
International front: Solidarity knows no borders
Despite the HKCTU being relatively small in scale and having far fewer resources, it had lofty ambitions. Since the early days of the CIC, the independent labour movement in Hong Kong already had a vision of international worker solidarity and concern for oppressed people around the world. For instance, the CIC launched actions against apartheid in South Africa and military dictatorships in the Philippines.
The HKCTU carried on this tradition after its establishment. One of the best examples of the HKCTU’s commitment to global civil society is the 2005 WTO Ministerial Conference held in Hong Kong. The event attracted thousands of demonstrators from all over the world to Hong Kong, and the HKCTU formed an alliance with other civil society organisations to coordinate these protests.
Capital knows no borders, and exploitation knows no nationality; the only way forward for the labour movement is transnational solidarity. As the only independent trade union federation in Hong Kong, the HKCTU joined the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (later restructuring into the International Trade Union Confederation in 2006) as a member.
The HKCTU never shied away from supporting overseas workers who were exploited by Hong Kong multinational enterprises; trade unions launched actions to put pressure on these unscrupulous employers or parent companies in Hong Kong. Conversely, foreign trade unions would also lend a helping hand when Hong Kong workers had labour disputes.
In 2013, when the dock workers in Hong Kong went on strike, representatives of the dock workers’ unions from the Netherlands and Australia, who were also employed by the same corporation came to Hong Kong to stand in solidarity with their Hong Kong counterparts.
HKCTU was also a committed ally to migrant workers in Hong Kong, such as carers in elderly homes, construction site workers and home helpers. Migrant workers are often in a more vulnerable position due to language and cultural barriers. Some politicians would even take advantage of social prejudice and xenophobia to justify the exploitation of these workers. Unfazed by immense social pressure, the HKCTU always steadfastly supported and helped migrant workers to organise and fight for fair pay and their rights.
Democracy struggle: Dignity cannot be trampled
From participating in the labour protests and striving for labour law reforms to assisting workers in establishing independent labour unions, the HKCTU always embraced the fundamentals of the labour movement: human dignity. Workers are not cogs in a machine who seek mercy or charity. They are entitled to claim what they deserve.
Senior government officials and pro-government trade unions always treat workers as mendicants whose only concern is to put food on the table. Whenever there were major social controversies, such as the demolition of Choiyuen Village for the high-speed railway, a filibuster in the Legco, and the 2014 Occupy Movement, pro-government trade unions would mobilise workers to take to the streets to accuse social movements of “taking away their livelihood”. At such times, members of the HKCTU would always righteously speak up in support of social movements and express their tenacity and commitment to social justice.
At the end of the day, universal political rights will need to be established to attain equality for the working class. In fact, the HKCTU was never absent in the democratic movement in recent times. Whether it was the fight for a democratic electoral system, opposing Article 23 of the Basic Law in 2003, the Umbrella Movement, or the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, the HKCTU was always at the forefront of the fight to represent workers’ demands for democracy. Rather than “politicising trade unions”, the fight for democracy is more about implementing the idea of the independent labour movement and restoring politics to its very roots: human dignity.
An unfinished journey to pass on
People who have been freed from their shackles will not voluntarily put the shackles back on. The sense of freedom that has taken root in human beings or in labour movements is not something that the regime can arbitrarily reverse.
Although the HKCTU is now disbanded, the achievements of the labour movement it had built over the years have reshaped the fabric of society and still exert influence to this day. In the 31-year history of the HKCTU, the beliefs and values it has left behind have already outlived the existence of the organisation. A regime can indict an organisation, but it cannot indict history. History will record everything.
This is an unfinished journey, but the seeds of workers’ resistance have been sown deep and wide. There will be newcomers, its successors to carry on this unfinished journey and accomplish the cause of the labour movement.