Chan Yuen-han returns to Legco determined to better lives of workers

Chan Yuen-han is 65 and a cancer survivor, but she is back in Legco, fighting to achieve a better life for the working people of Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 4:20am

At an age when many people are retiring, the labour rights advocate Chan Yuen-han is preparing to put in long hours in the Legislative Council for the next four years so workers can enjoy a shorter working week. Chan, 65, honorary president of the Federation of Trade Unions lost her Kowloon East seat at the 2008 election, but will return to Legco next month as a "super lawmaker" after winning 246,196 votes to claim one of five seats in the district council functional constituency.

"I will move a motion debate on standard working hours if we [the FTU] get a time slot," she told the South China Morning Post. "People's working hours are getting longer and longer. They are so tied up that they don't know when to get off work every day.

"We will also fight for an increase in the number of statutory holidays, from 12 to 17 a year. The existing practice is so unreasonable that many blue-collar workers are just entitled to the basic 12-day break, while office workers generally enjoy 17 holidays," said Chan, who first entered Legco in 1995.

Standard working hours legislation is the next goal for unionists after their long fight for a minimum wage law finally ended in victory in Legco in 2010. The city's first statutory wage floor, at HK$28 an hour, took effect on May 1 last year.

Despite Chan's firm record of fighting for labour rights, she does have one blemish on her record.

In 1997, she was absent when the Legislative Council voted on a government proposal to scrap a collective bargaining law implemented before the handover.

Questioned last week about her failure to stand up for collective bargaining, Chan defended her decision, saying that there had not been enough opportunities to discuss the motion.

"Collective bargain rights will be one of the demands on our agenda. There is room for collaboration between unions [of different political beliefs] on labour issues," she said, hinting at the divide between Beijing loyalist labour groups like hers and the Confederation of Trade Unions, which is part of the pan-democratic camp.

Chan said her main inspiration to return to the political agenda was widening inequality in the city and her desire to bring changes to society.

But her group was also keen to establish what she called a "windmill effect", where a big name fighting for a "super seat" would help win votes for the four slates the party was putting up in geographical constituencies. In the end, three of its candidates won election in geographical seats, although its New Territories East list was defeated.

"Seeing the broadening income disparity and social injustice, I have the urge to fight for a better future for workers and owners of small businesses," Chan said, firmly. She was warmly greeted by elderly residents of her political stronghold, Wong Tai Sin, while on the campaign trail, and Chan said lifting the elderly out of poverty would be one of her priorities.

Chan also pledged to push authorities to boost local, community-based economies to create more business and job opportunities for residents.

"For instance, can the Planning Department link the former North Point Estate site, which has recently been sold, with the nearby seafood stalls to help the economy in the area? Residents should be entitled to benefit from land development [in their towns]. It should not be the case that property developers gain everything," Chan said.

The election was not without friction within the Beijing loyalist camp, and the FTU clashed with its traditional ally, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, accusing the DAB of poaching votes by telling voters that FTU hopefuls had enough support to win election.

The was reflected in the voting for the "super seat". While Chan consistently topped the polls before the election, she ended up finishing fourth out of the seven lists. She remains furious at the alleged tactics of her rivals, who, she says, misled voters into believing that she had enough support to win and there was no need to support her.

Particularly surprising was the lukewarm support she received in Kowloon East, her traditional power base, where she was beaten by the DAB's Starry Lee Wai-king.

Chan was herself a founding member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and was a standing committee member from 1992 to 2005, when it formally merged with the Hong Kong Progressive Alliance to form the DAB. She left the DAB before returning to politics at November's district council elections.

The man who surrendered his district council seat in favour of Chan believes her return to the political arena will be worthwhile. Lam Man-fai gave up his seat on Wong Tai Sin District Council to allow her to contest the "super seat", which is open only to district councillors.

"She has been sincere in helping workers and the grass roots. In 2003, she helped organise a [three-month] flea market in Wong Tai Sin, which offered a timely relief to many jobless people, particularly the low-skilled," Lam said.

"Hong Kong needs change. Not many people can bring change [to Hong Kong], so I persuaded her to make a comeback," he said.

Chan will resume the stressful life of a politician nine years after she underwent two operations for breast cancer. At the time she said she would learn how to balance her working life with leisure. But now she is even considering the prospect of running again in the next Legco poll in 2016. Asked if she would stand again, Chan said: "It depends on whether the public will give me another chance, and my health."


Chan Yuen-han

Age 65

Currently Legislator-elect for the District Council (Second) functional constituency; Wong Tai Sin district councillor; one of two honorary presidents of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions.

Previously Legislator (1995-2008); founding member and then standing committee member (1992-2005) of the then-Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong (now the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong); appointed Eastern district councillor (1988-1991).

Education A higher diploma in business administration from Polytechnic University and the Business Management Society; a bachelor of arts degree