WHATEVER the outcome of the Cathay Pacific dispute, the right to strike issue will not go away. Too many labour unions have become involved to let the matter fade. In addition, the involvement of the territory's leading liberals, the United Democrats is aguarantee that political pressure will be brought to bear on tightening Hongkong's labour regulations to give workers better protection than they are afforded under the current system. At present, the right to strike after 1997 is guaranteed under the Basic Law. It is set out in Article 27 along with freedom of the press, speech, association, assembly, procession and demonstration and the right to form and join trade unions. No such guarantee is offered to Hongkong's workforce at present. Existing law guarantees the right to engage in unspecified union activities - provided they take place outside working hours or at a time agreed by the employer - and permits very limited peaceful picketing. Yet the right to strike is nowhere stated. The best that can be said of Hongkong's labour law is that the right to strike is implicit in the protection against prosecution offered to trade unions and is not explicitly denied to individual workers. A worker can down tools and if he feels it necessary, walk out on a job. However to do so would be a breach of contract. While his union is protected from pursuit in the courts, a worker can be sacked at the whim of the employer. There is no law against unfair dismissal. It is little wonder that the Cathay Pacific flight attendants' strike has held the attention of employer and employee alike. Both will be looking to see what longer term implications can arise out of the dispute. Trade unions will be wanting to flex their muscles in securing a better deal for workers, while employers will be wary of giving workers more rights than required by law. While no one is predicting a return to the unrest of the 1960s and 1970s inspired by the Cultural Revolution, labour disputes are likely to be a more frequent phenomenon in Hongkong for the next few years as workers are tempted to get their grievances sorted out and extract the best deal possible before the handover to Chinese rule. At the very least, there should be more developed mechanisms for arbitration and conciliation and a framework for settling disputes before they reach the point of industrial action. Nonetheless, the labour movement should be warned that legislators' interest in the matter does not necessarily bode well for its cause. While the United Democrats, with their grass-roots power base have sided with the striking Cathay staff and would likely take a pro-labour stand in any discussion of enhancing workers' rights in Legco, not every political group will be so sympathetic. A Co-operative Resources Centre spokesman has said it is not right to intervene in commercial operations. In any debate on workers' rights, it is almost certain that the conservative CRC and other like-minded groups would represent employers' interests. Whatever may be stated in the Basic Law, the business community will fight tooth and nail against reform. They can be expected to warn of industrial anarchy if unions and workers are given too much power. Labour organisations will argue that a legally entrenched right to strike is meaningless unless strikers are protected against dismissal. How the Governor, Mr Chris Patten, handles such a charged issue that is bound to polarise the community will be instructive. His instincts as a member of the union-bashing British Conservative party would naturally be to side with the employers and exploit a golden opportunity to win a few friends in the increasingly hostile business community which has railed against his political reforms. Yet to do so would pit him against his supporters in the liberal camp. Even so, the political calculation may not beas simple as it seems. The UDHK, perhaps uncomfortable with its image as the de facto party of government, might feel happier with a solid issue to oppose Mr Patten on. As a populist with a politician's feel for the public mood, balancing the conflicting interests of employers who want labour laws to remain as they are against the demands of an increasingly sophisticated and vociferous workforce could indeed be the nextmajor test facing the Governor.