Hong Kong should follow mainland example on labour laws

Ever since the handover in 1997, the city’s rich have been getting richer while workers have been left far behind. It’s time to resurrect a collective bargaining law, as has happened in Guangdong and Zhejiang

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 1:13am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 1:13am

It’s not true that Hong Kong never had a collective bargaining law. Days before China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong Kong in 1997, one was passed. But as the last colonial legislature was replaced by the Provisional Legislative Council, the law was almost immediately suspended and then formally terminated on October 29.

That’s why two dozen labour representatives yesterday launched a symbolic hunger strike to mark that fateful day.

The last two decades have been a terrible time for labourers and low-income groups – stagnant wages, government cutbacks and short-term contracts with little or no perks or labour protection. On the other hand, despite the Asian financial crisis, the property market collapse induced by the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome and the global financial crisis, it had been a most generous period to those with capital and property.

CY Leung rejects collective bargaining as union tool

The impoverishment of labour and the obscene enrichment of capital in recent decades have been a universal phenomenon among developed economies. Still, while different economies may exhibit the same phenomenon, there are variable local causes. Post-1997 politics has been a key determinant for us.

The administrations of our first chief executives practically ran an “open door” policy for the business elite. For a long time, Beijing had believed our local tycoons’ support was crucial to a successful transition to Chinese rule. Belatedly, it has taken a far dimmer view of their pernicious influence.

It doesn’t help that two of the city’s largest labour federations are at loggerheads. The Confederation of Trade Unions is allied with the opposition, while the pro-communist Federation of Trade Unions is friendly with the central and Hong Kong governments.

The business sector has long argued Hong Kong doesn’t need collective bargaining because it will worsen tensions between workers and bosses, and a free economy doesn’t need heavy labour regulations.

Guangdong collective bargaining proposal seen as bellwether for China

But the speed with which the government and the business elite moved to kill the collective bargaining law betrayed their real anxieties.

It’s also not true that the city has no collective bargaining. The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union and the Aircrew Officers Association, which represents Cathay pilots, have long enjoyed collective bargaining rights.

The legal trends on the mainland have been to enforce greater protection for labour rights. Guangdong and Zhejiang have introduced different versions of collective bargaining, with the central government taking a favourable view of such laws.

It’s time Hong Kong follows the mainland.