Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific cabin staff reflect the city's ethos

Stephen Vines laments the lack of public support for union action

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2012, 1:57am

Hong Kong people admire those who stand up for themselves. There is plenty of admiration for anyone clever enough to get the best out of a negotiation and strive for a better standard of living. But when these attributes are applied to members of labour unions, somehow a completely different view is taken.

This view is on display as Cathay Pacific is at loggerheads with its staff over pay and conditions, and industrial action has only just been avoided during a period when the airline is most vulnerable. And this is not the first time.

So far, so predictable. Equally predictable are the squalls of dismay over the staff having the temerity to fight for their interests, and to do so, as is the way in negotiations, when those on the other side of the table are most vulnerable.

What is unusual about Cathay staff, in the Hong Kong context, is that they are unionised and have an abnormal history of conflict with their employer. Perhaps this is why their collective action provokes the ire of people who write letters to this newspaper. Yet what the flight attendants' union is doing is pretty standard overseas and, arguably, very much in line with the ethos of Hong Kong.

First, they are supporting one another in the finest traditions of this place.

Second, they are struggling for a bigger piece of the pie - albeit a pie which, their employer maintains, is shrinking in size.

And third, they are using pressure tactics at a time when they are most likely to succeed, that is, by threatening industrial action during a peak travel season.

Why, then, is their behaviour being widely castigated as being alien to Hong Kong traditions and beliefs? Indeed, although the record of union action at Cathay is unusually long, it has also had mixed results.

The disputes at Cathay arise amid a strange background for unions in Hong Kong. The biggest trade union federation has close relations with the territory's shadowy Communist Party organisation, and it is further shackled by its leaders' ties to the government and pro-establishment forces, which keep any rebellion as tame as possible.

The newer Confederation of Trade Unions is associated with the pro-democracy forces on the other side of the fence and lacks even a fraction of the resources that belong to the leftist unions. Nevertheless, it is very active and has provided support for Cathay staff.

Generally speaking, there is little in the way of effective organisation outside the civil service. Aside from Cathay, most industrial action in Hong Kong has been largely spontaneous, with unions coming in only after the event or not at all.

On the whole, labour unions are retreating worldwide. But in Britain, for example, where mighty unions have been cut down to size, there are signs of revival; and in less developed nations, such as South Africa, trade unionism is very much alive and kicking.

Ironically, if indeed there is any breath of air left for irony on the mainland, the state permits only unions that are firmly under state control. And yet labour militancy is on the rise and strikes in factories there are growing apace, albeit without the benefit of an organised structure.

So where does that leave Hong Kong?

The growing strength of civil society groupings has so far had little impact on the workplace, but then again, the progress of this disjointed movement is producing unexpected results all over the place. We have seen schoolchildren humbling the government; grass-roots pressure has put the expansion of public housing back on the agenda despite the influence of powerful property developers; and in many environmental issues, the government has been thwarted in ways it never imagined.

Meanwhile, the arrogant assumption that a bunch of so-called trolley dollies can be pushed around is proving to be less than substantial. It may even be that Hong Kong people will notice that they are behaving in ways that are perfectly acceptable in other contexts. In other words, there may be acceptance of the idea that a free market should also mean freedom for the people who work in it to protect their interests.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur