Strike casts shadow over Beijing-friendly forces

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2007, 12:00am

There was nothing unusual about the demands of bar benders who staged the longest strike in Hong Kong since the handover: They wanted higher wages and a shorter working day. But politics turned a straight-forward labour issue into a five-week marathon that was even discussed by President Hu Jintao and Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen when they met on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum meeting in Sydney last week.

Demands for higher wages are to be expected with our economy performing well. Civil servants have been awarded a pay rise and now work a five-day week and it is natural that workers in other economic sectors should want better terms. Social workers and nurses are among those who have joined bar benders in calling for a bigger share of the prosperity.

But the construction industry has peculiarities not usually found in other sectors. The property developers behind the buildings that are the face of Hong Kong are our wealthiest people. Those who put their buildings up are not among the lowest paid, but given the unpredictability of the construction industry, are grouped with the more vulnerable. A system of contracting and sub-contracting, tied in with the construction industry being at the mercy of economic ups and downs, means that few workers on building sites have full-time jobs. They work on day rates and are not assured of further employment when a particular project is finished.

Hong Kong does not have a history of labour disputes despite our free-market system. Employers and workers generally agree on terms and conditions between themselves and, where they cannot, the Labour Department has a mediation mechanism.

The process has largely served us well, as the minimal amount of previous industrial action has shown. This time it faltered as the Beijing-friendly Federation of Trade Unions and the pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions fought for the right to represent the bar benders in negotiations with employers.

For a while, it appeared that employers were trying to wear down the workers and CTU unionists, who are seen as more militant and less willing to settle. They would rather reach a deal with the FTU, which is perceived as more ready to compromise in line with Beijing's overriding objective of preserving social harmony in Hong Kong.

When an agreement was finally reached on Wednesday night, the bar benders achieved only a modest pay rise and slightly shorter working hours. But what matters greatly is that the CTU has dealt a big blow to its arch-rival, the FTU. The CTU's success in demonstrating leadership in representing the bar benders has boosted its standing among the working class.

Politically, this is likely to enhance the chances of CTU leader and legislator Lee Cheuk-yan of getting re-elected in next year's Legislative Council election. While the FTU is expected to maintain its grip over one of two Legco seats representing the labour constituency, its poor showing in representing the bar benders is likely to cast a shadow not just on its own image, but also that of the wider pro-Beijing camp.