Movements in Hong Kong (part 1)

A port strike in Hong Kong
Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions
By Lynn Koh
May 16, 2013

In December 2012, I was part of a small group of organizers that met with activists in Hong Kong and South China.  For the next few weeks, I will be posting reflections on the trip.


During the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, my mom cried.  It was the feeling, she later explained to me, that a mother has when her child finally returns home.  I found it to be a curious sentiment, since my mother's family had lived on Taiwan for 5 generations, and her husband's family fled to there from Nanjing in 1949.  For an immigrant, though, the feeling that things are returning to their rightful place was a precious one.

An historic wrong was being undone, but within Hong Kong itself residents debated their prospects as part of the People's Republic.  It is likely that, leading up to the handover, a majority favored continuing colonial rule, although an organized movement had developed which supported Hong Kong's return along with civil, social, and political rights. 

Feelings of anticolonial nationalism may have prevailed in the diaspora, but for Beijing, Hong Kong had and retains tremendous strategic importance. Along with New York and London, Hong Kong is a key regional center for financial capital.  The oft-mentioned 'rise of China' is constrained by the US dollar's privileged role as a means of international economic exchange, and the renminbi will not be a rival currency as long as the state maintains strict control over the exit from and entry into China of renminbi.  The probable plan is for the Chinese government to gradually float its currency through Hong Kong, and thereby have access to some of the fiscal prerogatives the US currently enjoys.

The probable plan is for the Chinese government to gradually float its currency through Hong Kong, and thereby have access to some of the fiscal prerogatives the US currently enjoys.

More immediately, the city also borders Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone whose explosive growth in the 1990s based on export factories changed the direction of the Chinese economy.  Not only does Hong Kong's transportation and shipping sector connect Shenzhen to retailers and distributors around the world, but the city's proximity means that political and social unrest in Hong Kong may influence the very heart of the Pearl River Delta's political economy. 

This December, I accompanied 5 other Chinese American organizers on a delegation to Hong Kong to meet with organizers struggling to determine the future of this global metropolis.  We were hosted by the supremely generous and knowledgeable Monina Wong, who works in the International Trade Union Confederation's Hong Kong office.  I offer here some highlights of this delegation.


Hong Kong has been through its share of industrialization and de-industrialization.  Light, mainly dispersed industry arose first from the small-scale entrepreneurs that fled China in the first decades after the 1949 revolution. In the 70s, and 80s, globalized capital seeking new outlets for investment fueled the garment industry's boom. Then, in the 1990's manufacturing in Hong Kong collapsed, as the business elite moved their investments into Shenzhen to take advantage of China's new openness to capitalism. This dramatically affected women workers, who were confronted with a radically changed labor market; they faced the alternatives of low-paid service work, informal work, or dropping out of the labor market altogether. From 2001 to 2005, the rate of women in poverty increased 30%.[1]  The political economy of Hong Kong now resembled that of San Francisco or New York City: a lavishly compensated financial sector surrounded by an ocean of poor workers. Several of the local organizers told us, matter-of-factly, that Hong Kong was the most unequal city in the world.[2]

If a two-tier, financialized economy forms the backdrop to labor organizing, then the question of political democracy cuts through it.  Nearly all the Hong Kong activists -- in the labor movement as well as outside it -- describe Hong Kong as something like a semi-colony of Beijing.  This was a surprise to me, partly because I had assumed 'One Country, Two Systems' referred to liberal democracy rather than liberal capitalism. In fact, although residents of Hong Kong can organize and dissent publicly, they have never had a system of genuine representative democracy. Under colonialism, the legislative council was dominated by councilors selected by industry associations or other corporate-constituent bodies, with a small number of directly elected seats. Today, this political hybrid persists, along with an appropriately named Chief Executive who is voted into office by a group of 1200 'electors' chosen from a pool stacked with CCP-aligned public figures.[3]    

Beijing, under popular pressure, claims it will turn the entire legislative body into directly elected seats -- the official target-date, ever receding, is 2020 -- along with the Chief Executive. Many organizers believe that, parallel to the democratization process, the CCP is consolidating its hegemony within civil society, by funneling resources to NGO's that will mobilize constituencies to the polls to vote for the pro-Beijing parties, while slowly draining independent organizations of resources.

Since the handover, the CCP has ruled through an alliance with the Hong Kong business elite, whose influence pervades the legislative council.  The struggle for political democracy thus naturally links with the struggle for progressive social reform, as well as providing a clear pole within those struggles.  A key example is that of the trade unions.  Hong Kong only passed legislation guaranteeing a minimum wage for most workers last year after a lengthy organizing effort; it is currently set at $28 Hong Kong Dollars per hour, or a little less than $4 US dollars per hour.  There is no legally guaranteed right of unions to bargain collectively.   Unions often recruit members by defending them in the workplace when a dispute arises between labor and management, or when workers sign up for union membership to access the union's benefits or training programs.  As a result, the dues structure is much weaker -- members typically pay about $200 Hong Kong dollars (less than $30 US dollars) each year, which is less than what a member of my union pays in one month.   Thus, while trade unions represent about 20% of Hong Kong's working class -- nearly double the percentage in the US -- they face huge obstacles in becoming vehicles for class struggle.   

However, the largest trade union federation, the pro-CCP Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, espouses the line that demands for political reform are irrelevant to the material conditions of workers' lives.  While it joins the calls for social legislation, it also sometimes seeks to limit social disruption and therefore militant collective action.  Its rival, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions calls it a 'yellow union' -- laborspeak for a company union that won't fully defend workers' rights. 

We met with the HKCTU director, as well as the organizer of its 'food recycling' program, the director of its training programs, and the organizer of its Disney campaign.  The HKCTU has about 170,000 members, nearly double the size of its membership when it was first launched in 1990 as an independent alternative to the HKFTU.  Its leadership is decidedly progressive, active in campaigns that impact the community as well as its members.  One example is the 'food recycling' program, where organizers visit produce markets at the end of the day to collect edible produce that vendors are going to through out.  They then use this food to provide cheap meals for the participants of its training programs as well as low-income residents in the community.  We shared a mouth-watering vegetarian lunch with the organizer of the program and other union members.

While it may sound like a simple, feel-good community service program, HKCTU actually sees this as a model for what green jobs may look like in a city without a sizeable manufacturing sector.  They also intend to raise consciousness about food waste and vegetarianism.

If those goals seemed utterly foreign to the labor movement I was familiar with in the Bay Area, the discussion with the Disney organizer revealed uncannily similar organizing practices despite the much tougher situation for the Hong Kong labor movement.  Workers at Hong Kong's Disney theme park are fighting to get a collective bargaining agreement, which is something that Disney workers at all other theme parks in the world currently enjoy.  When the organizer started working on the campaign, there were just 2 dues-paying members out of a total of 4,000 workers.  Through judicious organizing, a handful of worker leaders emerged to lead a campaign demanding improved working conditions.  They signed up 1,500 coworkers on a petition calling for paid meal breaks, which has brought an additional 60 members into the union and forced management into granting modest concessions -- although not the paid meal break, yet -- and winning the ability of the union to hold meetings on site.

The most vibrant section of the labor movement may be its domestic worker wing.  Domestic workers are 4 of the 26 members of the HKCTU executive borad, and they also comprise between one-third and one-half of the participants at the annual May Day rally.

Of the 3 million workers in Hong Kong, about 300,000 are migrant domestic workers, while another 50,000 domestic workers are Hong Kong 'locals'.  These migrants are largely Filipino and Indonesian, who unsurprisingly are excluded from basic labor protections.  They are not covered by the statutory minimum wage, for instance, but by a separate minimum wage policy through the immigration regulations.  The law on mandatory pension funds also does not apply to domestic workers, they are chained to an employer due to visa and residency issues, and they often face extortion by contractors and recruitment agencies in their home countries, sometimes totaling up to 7 months wages.  Xenophobia targets these women; during our delegation a facebook group was started to call for a ban on migrant workers, and had 8,000 'likes' within days.

The idea of a domestic workers' bill of rights actually migrated to the US with a Filipina who had ben a domestic worker in Hong Kong and then linked up with Domestic Workers United in New York, which reflects how advanced the organizing in Hong Kong has become in this sector.  We met with Ah Yu, or 'Fish', who organizes with the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers United, and Maya, a Nepalese domestic worker who has been a leader since 1996.  Status issues are particularly sharp for Nepalese migrants, because termination means they will lose their legal status unless they find a new employer immediately.

Fish explained that most of the organizing calls happen between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., which is the time that most domestic workers have for themselves in a frenetic working day.  FADWU has 1500 members, and is made up of 7 affiliate organizations each based in one of 5 different nationalities (3 Filipino organizations, and Indonesian, Nepalese, Thai, and Chinese).  Its member-leaders are currently organizing to oppose the policies in Indonesia and the Philippines which make it mandatory that domestic workers come through middleman employment agencies, which often collude in turn with lending institutions to extort huge sums from their overseas workforce.  They are also trying to pass legislation granting residency rights to domestic workers and ensure decent living accommodations for live-in workers.

Ah Yu describes FADWU's membership, a leading force in the Hong Kong labor movement, as a 'close and caring sisterhood, with many leaders.'

[1] This analysis is courtesy of the Hong Kong Women Workers' Association.

[2] Hong Kong has a Gini coefficient of .56 (which measures economic inequality), larger than the United States.

[3] For a good description of this system and the struggles to democratize it, refer to "Uncertainty in the Enclave" by Ho-Fung Hung, New Left Review vol. 66

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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