Government’s Ongoing Persecution Causes Heavy Blow to Hong Kong’s Labour Rights in 2023

4 mins read

Hong Kong Labour Rights Monitor published the report ‘The State of Labour in Hong Kong 2023’ today (24 April), pointing out that Hong Kong’s gloomy economic outlook and the government’s continued crackdown on trade unions have undermined workers’ rights in the city. With the local working population shrinking, the role as a “super-connector” between the mainland and the rest of the world fading, and the Chinese economy hitting a wall, Hong Kong’s medium-term economic prospects are rather gloomy. Furthermore, the government’s crackdown on the city’s trade unions has never relaxed since the promulgation of the National Security Law(NSL). Over 200 trade unions were forced to dissolve in the past three years. Consequently, the number of trade union members in 2022 plummeted 7% compared to 2019. The trade unions have experienced a sharp decline in membership, with an average decrease of 40%. And there has been a significant rise in the number of “mini trade unions,” comprising 50 or fewer members, which has surged threefold, from 287 to 813. The diminishing membership and fragmented nature of trade unions have made it difficult for workers to unite and fight for their rights.
‘The State of Labour in Hong Kong 2023’ examined the condition of labour rights in Hong Kong in four areas: the economy and labour market, labour legislation and policies, violations of labour standards, trade union activities and collective workers’ actions.

Gloomy economic future; Aging working population

Hong Kong’s economy has yet to recover to its pre-pandemic levels. In 2023, the GDP remained 2.7% lower than in 2018 and 1.1% lower than in 2019. Hong Kong’s once-dominant role as a “super-connector” between China and the global economy has gradually waned. This decline in connectivity, coupled with China’s sluggish economy and underlying structural issues, casts a shadow over Hong Kong’s economic prospects.
Over the past three years, a substantial wave of migration has taken its toll on local human resources in Hong Kong, resulting in a notable shrinking of the labour force. As of the fourth quarter of 2023, the labour force had dropped by 4.1% compared to its pre-pandemic levels in the same period of 2019. Affected by the rapid change in the city’s political and social climate, the labour force in the age groups aged 20 to 24 and 25 to 29 had the most substantial declines, plummeting by 63,000 (-28.5%) and 60,000 (-15%) respectively, compared to 2019. The young labour force has declined substantially, while the number of persons aged 65 and over has climbed by 30% compared to 2019. The working force aged 60 and above stands at nearly 520,000, accounting for 15% of the entire workforce or roughly one out of every six wage earners.

Union organisers arrested; Over 200 trade unions dissolved

Since the promulgation of the NSL, the government’s persecution of the city’s independent trade unions and their leaders has never relaxed. On the contrary, it has become worse compared to the situation in 2022. By the end of 2023, at least 13 trade union leaders had been arrested. Three of them were still incarcerated, six had been released upon completing their sentences, three were out on bail following their arrests, and one was withdrawn from charges. In addition, there is also a trade unionist overseas who is wanted for engaging in international labour movements. Faced with a deteriorating political climate and the chilling impact of the NSL, a staggering 218 unions were forced to dissolve or deregister between 2021 and 2023. This stands in stark contrast to the mere 11 unions that faced similar fates between 2018 and 2020. Following the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, the Registrar of Trade Unions de-registered the Hong Kong White Collar (Administration and Clerical) Connect Union last year.

Shrinking trade union membership

The decline in trade union membership and fragmentation of trade unions have posed substantial difficulties to workers’ collective actions. Despite a growth in the total number of trade unions from 917 in 2019 to 1,454 in 2022, there has been a notable decline in the number of members. This figure fell 7.6% from 934,000 to 863,000 in the same time period. At the same time, the size of trade unions shrank, reflected in the average number of trade union members falling from 1,019 to 597. And there has been a noteworthy rise in the number of “mini unions” with 50 or fewer members. The number of such unions has surged dramatically from 287 to 813 during the same period, a threefold increase.
The government has stated on occasion that an increase in the number of trade unions means continued protection of workers’ rights and interests. However, since the implementation of the NSL in Hong Kong, trade unions have encountered difficulties recruiting and retaining members. According to the report, the formal dissolution of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union will result in a further decline in trade union membership, plummeting to 770,000, a one-sixth reduction. The dissolution of large independent unions, coupled with the shrinking size and fragmentation of existing unions, as well as a fall in membership, posed formidable obstacles for organisers seeking to unify workers and fight for their rights. The report also predicts that the legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law will undoubtedly further limit the space for trade union’s operation and functioning.
On the other hand, labour legislation and policies safeguarding wage earners’ rights have remained stagnant. The minimum wage, which had been frozen for the past four years, was raised from HKD37.5 to HKD40. However, this increase translates to an average annual rise of merely 6 cents, falling far short of alleviating the financial burden on grassroots workers. Although the statutory definition of ‘continuous employment’, commonly known as “4-18” under the Employment Ordinance, would be relaxed to “4-68”, many part-time workers still find themselves excluded from the protection. Furthermore, the preliminary study to improve the protection of digital platform workers is not expected to be completed until 2026. In addition, the government has yet to address issues such as the impact of labour importation on local workers and revisions to the Code of Practice for Employment Agencies, which intended to curb ‘job-hopping’ among foreign domestic workers. As independent labour unions face political suppression, Labour Day rally are banned, freedom of speech is greatly restricted, the workers feel extremely difficult to influence the government policies through any normal channels.

Collective actions despite obstacles

Despite all these difficulties, Hong Kong’s labour rights activists have never stopped exploring ways to break through the current predicament, and workers have begun organising themselves to defend their own rights. For example, local artists concerned about labour rights joined hands with trade unions to fight for an increase in the hourly wage of MTR outsourced cleaners, successfully negotiating a rise from $40 to $50 in 2023, along with a 6% gratuity at the end of their contracts. About 30 site workers spontaneously blocked roads outside the Tai Po site, intending to reclaim about $700,000 in unpaid wages. The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union staged a “work-to-rule” industrial action to voice their dissatisfaction with staffing and rostering issues. While these individual labour actions may not immediately result in sweeping changes, they serve as powerful reminders of workers’ resilience and determination to assert their rights within an oppressive environment. Worker resistance will never disappear because of the worsening socio-political climate.