Labour laws cry out for reform

THE first week of the Year of the Rooster has been a busy one for the members of the Legislative Council.

They were dragged into the Cathay labour dispute by the striking flight attendants.

Legco concern for the dispute is beyond doubt - 23 councillors (about 40 per cent of the Legco membership) met the petitioning flight attendants.

Having failed to persuade the Labour Department to step up its mediation effort, the Legco house committee resolved to call on the Governor to act.

Legco also set up a monitoring committee to ensure the flight attendants would not be victimised by the management for participation in the strike.

The high-profile involvement in the dispute is unprecedented.


Legco members have justified their involvement on the grounds that, by its latter stage, the dispute was no longer a private matter between Cathay and the flight attendants.

The insistence of Cathay management on taking disciplinary action against the flight attendants is seen as a challenge to the workers' rights to strike and to collective bargaining in general.

Existing labour legislation does not offer any protection for the workers' right to strike. So Legco members do have a duty to look at the implications of the Cathay strike with regard to legislating for labour disputes.

However, what labour legislation there is has been in existence for some time. Nor is the legal loophole regarding the workers' right to strike a recent discovery.


Several years ago, the Mass Transit Railway Corporation fired scores of workers for taking part in a strike. Calls were then made for changes to the labour laws. IN FACT, improvements to labour legislations in Hongkong are long overdue. Significant labour law reforms were introduced in the 1970s when Hongkong shed its sweat shop image to emerge as a modern society with an educated and sophisticated workforce.

Unfortunately, progress was halted when the question of the future of Hongkong went through a lengthy negotiation process.


In the past decade, the territory, the political community in particular, has been occupied by political debates - Sino-British diplomatic relations, drafting of the Basic Law, constitutional reforms, human rights, right of abode and so forth.

Inevitably, less attention has been paid to the more routine, down to earth socio-economic issues.

The Cathay dispute has glaringly exposed the harmful consequence of relative negligence of necessary socio-economic reforms.


It is ironic to note that two functional constituency seats representing labour were created in the Legislative Council in 1985.

But the two veteran union legislators, Mr Tam Yiu-chung and Mr Pang Chun-hoi, have so far not been pushing for significant improvements to labour legislation.

It is even more ironic to note that Mr Tam (who was a Basic Law drafter) was active in fighting for the Basic Law's explicit protection of the workers' rights to strike and to collective bargaining. Similar activism on existing labour laws is still wanting.


Labour welfare is only one example of socio-economic issues that are neglected. There is a long list of others.

For example, the last white paper on medical policy was published in 1974.

The major medical and health reform in the past two decades has been the establishment of the Hospital Authority. However, its role is limited to providing hospital services.

The Government has yet to update its overall medical and health policy.

The Government produced its first 10-year public housing plan in 1972. It did not produce anything similar until 1987 when a so-called long-term housing strategy was published. The Housing Branch was then abolished without good reasons.

Right now, there is a more autonomous Housing Authority but there is no housing policy. Without a policy branch, does it mean the Government does not believe in the need for a housing policy at all? Social welfare, education, retirement pension, care for the elderly, disabled and disadvantaged, tax reform, environmental protection, infrastructure building - on all these fronts there have been serious delays in introducing new legislation, in defining the policies and in implementing the programmes. As a result, Hongkong has become a society of contradictions. THE Governor, Mr Chris Patten, has said that Hongkong has a first world economy but a third world environment. Also, as Hongkong is on the verge of joining the prestigious club of developed economies, our retired workers have no security while many of our elderly and disabled are not provided with home or care.

The danger is: the debates over diplomatic and constitutional issues are unlikely to subside in the next five or even 10 years.

Does it mean the necessary socio-economic reforms have to continue to wait? For Legco, and the Government as well, there is obviously more to learn from the Cathay dispute than just a loophole in labour legislation.

Lo Chi-kin is director of public affairs at Burston-Marsteller and a member of Meeting Point. The views expressed in this article are personal.