HOW can employees safeguard their rights in an atmosphere of fear and cost-cutting? Unionists say collective bargaining is one solution. They cite the Apple Shop case, in which the company initially took a 'take-it-or-leave-it' approach in asking staff to accept a pay cut of up to 20 per cent, as an example of how aggressive tactics can put pressure on staff. Only after intense pressure from labour organisations did the company soften its stance and start negotiating with workers. Collective bargaining is where employers enter into talks with trade unions over matters such as staff benefits and salary adjustments. Agreements resulting from these negotiations are set down in a legally binding contract. Unionist Lee Cheuk-yan says that only two local labour unions, representing employees of Cathay Pacific and Cable and Wireless (now a part of Hongkong Telecom), are entitled to an established negotiation mechanism with the company management, while other unions, such as those representing MTR staff, were recognised by employers as suitable partners with which to hold talks. Most unions, however, were cold-shouldered by company management, he said. Mr Lee successfully introduced the Employees' Rights to Representation, Consultation and Collective Bargaining Bill during the last session of the pre-handover Legislative Council, despite intense opposition from the Government and the business sector. Within three months of the handover, the Government - with the help of a provisional legislature dominated by business-sector members - froze and repealed the ordinances. '[Collective bargaining] sounds persuasive on first hearing but one has to look behind the initial attraction,' said Ross Sayers, chairman of the Employers' Federation. 'In other countries practising collective bargaining, it had the effect of slowing economic growth, and the slowing and reducing of employment.' However, Mr Lee believes that a collective-bargaining mechanism should also help employers because the unions would be able to co-ordinate vastly different demands of workers and achieve a unified stand - and sometimes even compromises. Fellow unionist legislator Lee Kai-ming says the concept advocates employers and employees sharing together the fallout of good or bad times. 'Sometimes the employees would have to make concessions in these negotiations - [the employees] may win or lose.' Employers regard legislation for collective bargaining as endowing unions with excessive power. Lee Cheuk-yan plans to resubmit the bill this year. The traditional leftist Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) is also considering whether to submit its own version to the legislature. FTU legislator Chan Yuen-han stressed that it would allow for collective bargaining at an individual enterprise level for individual industries, and one centralised tier for the whole economy.