In the past 30 years, the independent labour movement and the people of Hong Kong have witnessed many changes. The events described here, from 1990 to the present, epitomise some of the highs and lows of the development of the independent labour movement in Hong Kong and they reflect the sacrifices and efforts of countless workers and organisers.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
– Milan Kundera
Oppression by the regime cannot erase our beliefs. In today’s Hong Kong, although more than 100 trade unions have been forced to dissolve under political pressure, the independent labour movement is undeterred. There will be newcomers on this unfinished journey. Remembering the history of the labour movement and preserving the memories of these struggles, is a struggle in itself.
1993 | The “Beautiful” Strike
Three Cathay Pacific flight attendants were dismissed for their involvement in initiating industrial action. The Cathay Pacific Flight Attendant Union launched a strike on 13 January 1993 and put forward three demands: reinstate dismissed workers, increase manpower, and improve working conditions. During the strike, the union mobilised more than 1,000 members to camp out overnight at the then-Hong Kong governor’s house.
In an unusual effort, the legislative council intervened to establish an investigation committee on the incident to break the deadlock between the union and the management. The dispute ended after 16 days. As most of the strikers were flight attendants, the strike was dubbed as “The Beautiful Strike” by the public.
1995 | Labour Movement in the Rose Garden
The Airport Core Programme, commonly known as the Rose Garden Project, was a series of infrastructure projects centred on the new Hong Kong airport that had been initiated by the colonial government before 1997. However, the rosiness of the grandiose project was built at the expense of workers’ sweat and blood. The government imported a large number of migrant workers for the construction but did not regulate their treatment. Three hundred migrant workers from Fujian first took action when more than half of their wages were deducted monthly by their labour agencies. The labour dispute subsequently spread to migrant workers from the Philippines and Thailand, involving more than 3,000 people.
1995 | Parliamentary Front to make labour law reforms
Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor under the British colonial government, introduced an electoral reform that greatly expanded the voter base of the original functional constituencies and eventually led to the pro-democratic camp winning a historic majority of seats. The HKCTU 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 two-thirds to four-fifths of the normal salary, and introduced the provisions of unreasonable dismissal into the Employment Ordinance.
1997 | Abolition of the Collective Bargaining Legislation
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 abolished by the HKSAR government before the law could come into effect. The pro-government trade union, the Hong Kong Federations of Trade Unions, even cast their vote in the Provisional Legislation Council that sold out workers’ rights. In protest, Lee went on a 120-hour hunger strike and the HKCTU lodged a complaint with the International Labour Organization.
1998 | Labour Disputes Triggered by the Asian Financial Crisis
In response to the Asian financial crisis, many corporations devised plans to lay off staff and reduce wages and benefits, which triggered a large number of labour disputes. For example, Hong Kong Telecom proposed a 10% wage cut for its employees after making a profit of over HKD 10 billion. The trade union mobilised 3,000 employees to hold a rally, forcing the employer to withdraw the plan. Meanwhile, Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company Limited reduced the wages of their employees four times in one year; the workers refused to succumb and went on strike for three days.
2003 | Opposition to Article 23 Legislation
When the government attempted to force through the legislation of Article 23, trade unions worried that the right to organise trade unions and industrial action would be suppressed by the authorities on the grounds of national security. Other sections of society also raised concerns that the legislation would weaken the rule of law, freedom, and civil rights. On 1 July 2003, 500,000 people took to the streets to oppose the Article 23 legislation. In addition to mobilising members to participate in the rally, the HKCTU also sent a large number of volunteers to support the picketing. The collective power of the Hong Kong people succeeded in forcing the government to withdraw the legislation.
2005 | Protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO)
The WTO Ministerial Conference held in Hong Kong attracted anti-globalisation protesters from around the world, including more than a thousand Korean farmers, to protest against the impact of the WTO on their livelihoods. Along with other civil society organisations, the HKCTU formed the “Hong Kong People’s Alliance on the WTO” to play the role of coordinating protests in Hong Kong. Many demonstrators clashed with the police as they approached the venue, resulting in hundreds of arrests. The protests successfully prevented the WTO from reaching a new agreement and offered Hong Kong people a valuable lesson in understanding globalisation.
2005 | British Airways and Waihong Environmental Services Limited Convicted of Discriminating Against Unions
British Airways Hong Kong Cabin Crews Union Chairperson, Carol Ng, was accused by the company of violating the employee code of conduct due to an interview with the media and was issued a warning letter. Dismayed by the company’s suppression of union rights, Ng later reported to the Labour Department that the employer discriminated against the union and took the case to court. British Airways pleaded guilty to the charges and was fined by the court, making this the first case of discrimination against a trade union in Hong Kong. In the same year, Waihong Environmental Services retaliated against employees for demanding holiday pay and dismissed four workers who sought union assistance. After a court trial, the company was found to have discriminated against the union and was fined HKD 230,000.
2007 | Bar Benders Strike
Bar benders in Hong Kong went on strike for 36 days after suffering from years of wage cuts and stagnation, even though the economy had recovered from an earlier recession. At its peak, more than 1,000 workers participated in the strike. Donations to the strike fund that supported the striking workers poured in from all walks of life. After the strike, the HKCTU assisted the workers in setting up the Bar Bending Industry Workers Solidarity Union and successfully brought the Chamber of Commerce to the negotiation table for salary talks every year, which significantly improved working conditions and benefits.
2008｜Vitasoy, Watsons, Nestlé Strikes
In the summer of 2008, dissatisfied with the management’s long-term suppression of wages and commission income, transportation workers of the above beverage companies went on one strike after another. First, 200 Vitasoy employees went on strike and successfully attained a 4% salary increase; subsequently, 400 Watsons employees and 200 Nestlé employees also launched industrial action, and the employers agreed to raise their wages by 5% and 8% respectively. After the strike, the workers of the three companies set up trade unions to continue to strive for fair treatment in the workplace.
2010 | Café de Carol Boycott
On the eve before the introduction of the first statutory minimum wage, the fast-food chain Café de Carol suddenly announced that the company would withdraw its employees’ mealtime wages. The move was seen as abusing a legal grey area to offset additional payroll expenses that would have to be paid for the minimum wage. Café de Carol Chairman, Michael Chan Yue Kwong, who was also a member of the Interim Minimum Wage Committee at the time, roused citywide anger by taking the lead in evading the employer’s responsibilities. Thus, the Catering and Hotel Industries Employees General Union launched a citywide boycott of Café de Coral, forcing the company to make concessions before the day of action and announcing that employees would retain their mealtime wages.
2011 | 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, citywide statutory minimum wage legislation was finally enacted, marking the most important labour law reform after the handover of sovereignty, with more than 300,000 grassroots workers receiving wage increases. However, subsequent adjustments in minimum wage levels have been lagging, resulting in a rapid decline in the number of beneficiaries.
2013 | Dockers Strike
Faced with long-standing inhumane working conditions, low wages, and long working hours, the outsourced dockers at the Kwai Chung Container Terminal could stand no more and went on strike. The Union of Hong Kong Dockers set up tents outside the container terminal and the workers stayed behind for days and nights, joined by an endless stream of supporters and forming a spectacular community at the terminal. The strike later moved to the Cheung Kong Centre in Central , Hong Kong, putting pressure on the conglomerate behind the scenes to respond to the workers’ demands directly. During the strike, the trade union set up a strike fund and the public responded enthusiastically, raising HKD 8.9 million within a month to support the strikers’ livelihood. The strike lasted for 40 days and finally achieved a 9.8% pay rise and improved working conditions.
2014 | The Umbrella Movement
On 28 September 2014, tens of thousands of Hong Kong people went to the government headquarters to participate in the protest against the National People’s Congress’ “831 Decision” that stifled genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Police cracked down on the protest with 87 tear gas canisters. The HKCTU immediately launched a political strike in protest, which was supported by trade union professionals such as teachers, social workers, beverage workers, and dock workers. The HKCTU and other civil society organisations provided various forms of support during the 79-day occupation movement and actively called on the international labour movement to support the democratic struggle in Hong Kong, eventually gaining support from trade unions and global union federations from more than 30 different countries and regions.
2017 | Hoi Lai Estate Cleaners Strike
Cleaners from the public housing estate, Hoi Lai Estate, went on strike to protest against their employers (subcontracted by the government) and forced them to sign “voluntary resignation letters” when they finished their contracts to avoid severance pay. The incident revealed that the government lacked supervision over subcontractors, allowing outgoing and incoming subcontractors to conspire to defraud workers, resulting in the termination of workers’ accumulated service years. The Cleaning Service Industry Workers Union and local district councillors fought alongside the workers in a ten-day strike, forcing the Housing Authority to intervene and finally help the workers recover their rightful remuneration. The dispute triggered a wave of labour unrest among fellow cleaning workers in other public housing estates, forcing the government to introduce a contract-end bonus and revise salaries pegged to its outsourcing policy.
2019 | Anti-Extradition Bill Movement
The government’s forcible attempt to amend the extradition bill triggered a months-long social movement that was galvanised by the pursuit of five demands as a common goal. On 5 August 2019, as many as 350,000 workers participated in a political strike that inspired many workers to form their own trade unions in an attempt to sustain the political struggle, effectively setting off a “new trade union movement”.
During the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement, different professional groups such as teachers, medical professionals, financial workers, civil aviation workers, and civil servants organised sectoral assemblies to show solidarity. Later, some workers spontaneously established the “Two Million Three Strikes United Front” to unite trade unions in all walks of life to prepare for a political strike with greater influence in the long run.
2020 | Medical Workers Strike
In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, government officials ignored the threat to the healthcare system and public health posed by the spread of the virus in the community and refused to close the border. After repeated requests to no avail, the Hospital Authority Employee Alliance launched a five-day strike in two phases, demanding border closure to seal off the source of the virus and dialogue with the then Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam. As many as 8,000 medical workers participated in the strike, which was the largest medical workers’ strike in the history of the Hong Kong labour movement. Although the demands were not fully met, they nonetheless forced the government to close some high-risk borders and introduce quarantine measures.
2020 | The Promulgation of the Hong Kong National Security Law
Read more in our report: Hong Kong Trade Union Movement Under The National Security Law
In the face of the promulgation of the National Security Law, more than 20 trade unions launched a membership referendum. The results showed that the vast majority of people opposed the introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, but the number of votes was not enough to initiate a united workers’ strike.
After the implementation of the National Security Law, the authorities carried out large-scale persecution of civil society activists, including at least eight trade union leaders among those arrested. Five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists were sentenced to 19 months in prison for publishing children’s picture books on charges of sedition. Under imminent political risks, more than 100 trade unions were forced to dissolve, including the largest sectoral trade union in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, and the only independent trade union confederation in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
The regime can destroy an organisation, but it cannot destroy the beliefs and values an organisation represented.
Read more: History will Remember HKCTU’s Legacy
The fight is not over.
Despite the unprecedented suppression, Hong Kong’s courageous labour activists are still standing up for their rights.
2021 | Swire Coca-Cola, Foodpanda Strike
Despite the increasing political control, the exploited workers are not giving up their resistance and labour disputes are never-ending: more than 30 Swire Coca-Cola workers went on strike to oppose the company’s restructuring and pay cuts; dozens of construction workers blocked the entrances of the construction site to protest the contractor’s arrears of wages, and about 300 Foodpanda delivery workers launched a strike against unreasonable treatment, successfully paralysing the operation of the company’s department store shopping platform Pandamart.
This is an unfinished journey.
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.