Workers speaking as one drive a better bargain

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 November, 2010, 12:00am

Since the abolition of the laws on collective bargaining for labour unions by the Provisional Legislative Council after the handover, Hong Kong offers little fundamental employment rights and insufficient protection for workers against various forms of exploitation. The absence of collective bargaining is a huge disgrace to Hong Kong, which is one of the world's major financial centres.

We have survived crises such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic and the financial meltdown, but our workforce still cannot truly share the fruit of economic success.

The economic recovery has brought worsening inflation. That's why we hope the introduction of a minimum wage in Hong Kong can guarantee basic living standards for workers, which is a basic right.

The minimum wage law will be enforced next year and the lowest hourly rate is set at HK$28. But, some employers have tried to nullify the pay rises by cancelling staff benefits.

A case in point was the uproar over the Cafe de Coral pay offer. The fast-food chain had tried to cut meal-time payment for staff to offset their pay increases. If the company had not reversed its decision then a city-wide labour movement could have been started.

Since then, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung has repeatedly urged both employers and employees to resolve their labour disputes through negotiations.

It's true that this is the best way to overcome differences, but a proper balance of power among parties is also necessary for successful negotiations. With no recognition of collective bargaining, workers are powerless and can depend only on the willingness of employers to negotiate.

The sorry state of many local labour unions is apparent - with the exception of those of Cathay Pacific Airways. Its unions have been highly successful in protecting and raising the benefits for staff over the years; its employees are better paid than many others who are not protected by staff unions.

Cathay, which expects to post a profit of more than HK$12.5 billion for the year, recently announced that, apart from giving staff one-month discretionary bonus this year, it will hand out an extra bonus equivalent to at least three weeks' pay next March when it announces its year-end results. Furthermore, it will also implement a pay rise of between 4 and 4.5 per cent from early next year; the carrier had already given staff a two-week bonus in August when it announced record-breaking mid-year results.

Compared with other key employers in Hong Kong, Cathay certainly offers staff much better pay and benefits. There has been no lack of pay rises over the past decade with increases ranging from 1.5 to 5 per cent. Even after the 9/11 attack on the United States in 2001, the Sars epidemic in 2003 and then the global financial crisis last year, there were still pay rises, although they were limited.

In order to maintain a harmonious relationship with employees, companies must factor in staff welfare in their business operations and look after the interests of all stakeholders - shareholders, staff and customers.

On the other hand, staff should not immediately threaten to carry out industrial action at the drop of a hat when they are unhappy with the level of initial pay rises. This would only harm labour relations.

To maintain a cordial working environment, it depends not only on the attitude of employers; we must also empower employees with collective bargaining.

The relationship between workers and companies doesn't have to be confrontational if we know how to accommodate the various needs of stakeholders.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.