HK’s Reinvigorated Labour Movement

07-Feb-2020 Intellasia | TheAtlantic | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Growing numbers of people are joining unions to pressure the authorities to respond to their demands.

Angel was scrolling through the messaging app Telegram late last year when she saw a notice advertising a new union for health-care employees; her interest piqued. As a 25-year-old nurse in the surgery department of a major Hong Kong hospital, she works long hours and sees how the facility consistently struggles with a shortage of workers. Nurses in busy wards skip their holidays and time off to cover shifts, and Angel worries about the quality of care patients receive. The nursing association she was a member of advocated for better working conditions, but the results were minimal: The main benefits were discounts on food and travel packages. “It wasn’t exactly about political issues,” she told me of the group.

So Angelwho asked to be identified by her first name to avoid punishment from her employersigned up for the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), an upstart organisation born out of the prodemocracy protests that have carried on here for months. The sustained demonstrations have led to a surge of interest in organised labour: Numbers from the city’s labour department show that one dozen unions were established in the final two months of 2019, the HAEA among them. In the past year, at least 23 unions formed and were recognised by the labour department. Their organisers and members hope to diversify protest tactics, adding the possibility of industrial action to demonstrators’ growing tool kit for civil disobedience. At a New Year’s Day march, union representatives courted new members with flyers and banners playing on popular protest slogans and memes. “Resist tyranny, join a union” was added to the chorus of chants.

Hong Kong is a hyper-capitalist city whose government regularly touts its ease of business as one of its finest accolades. Unions here do not have collective bargaining power, and the largest labour group, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, is fervently pro-Beijing. But the city also has a history dotted with labour strikes and organising, events that have played a pivotal role in its development. The renewed enthusiasm and interest point toward an invigorated labour movement. Until recently, though, it was unclear how the uptick in members and organisations could be wrangled and deployed.

This week provided an early indicator that the fledgling unions will likely be a formidable new challenge for an already beleaguered, deeply unpopular government. Thousands of members of the HAEA have gone on strike to pressure authorities to close the border with mainland China, disrupting health services at public hospitals across the city. The workers believe that the measure is necessary to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, which has radiated out from China, creating a global health crisis.

Thus far, the health-care workers have received widespread support: 60 percent of respondents to a recent poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Institute said they backed the strike, while numerous other labour organisations, some also only recently formed, have signaled their interest in expanding the strike, potentially adding bus drivers, aviation workers, and educators to the mix. The prospect of a widening labour push rooted in the prodemocracy demonstrations would be another formalisation of a movement that the government has been keen, but unable, to stamp out. Leung Po-lung, the author of A History of Early Hong Kong Workers and the Labour Movement, told me that these unions mark the beginning of a new wave of labour activism in Hong Kong. “These people that are forming labour unions, it means that they have hope,” he said. “The labour unions are utilising their power against a government that is refusing to respond.”

The question remains, however, whether this movement will grip the city to the same extent that past strikes did, most notably in 1967. Then, routine labour disputes at a cement factory and artificial-flower plant quickly snowballed into larger grievances against the British colonial government that ruled Hong Kong. Buoyed by the gathering strength of the Cultural Revolution in China, left-wing labour unions pitted themselves against what the academics Benjamin Leung and Stephen Chiu have described as “the symbols of imperialist and capitalist authorities in Hong Kong.” Numerous labour actions, coordinated in part by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, spiralled into citywide violence. Leftists resorted to guerilla tactics, carrying out assassinations and a deadly bombing campaign. Police officers killed several rioters and at one point staged a raid by helicopter. By the time the riots were put down, 51 people had died and more than 800 had beene injured. The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions faced a temporary setback for its role in the riots. But in the decades that followed, it deftly maneuvered along shifting political winds, aligning itself with the Chinese government in Beijing, and has largely been absolved of its role in the riots by the Hong Kong government. A prodemocracy rival, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, emerged in 1990.


Category: Hong Kong

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