Neighbourhood and Workers Service Centre, one of Hong Kong’s oldest political and grass-roots advocacy groups, on the verge of collapse
Party helmed by veteran lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung faces its greatest challenge yet amid ideological differences between members and financial woes
Money troubles and infighting have left one of the Hong Kong’s oldest political and grass-roots advocacy groups on the verge of collapse.
The Neighbourhood and Workers Service Centre (NWSC), which has represented workers in past labour disputes and fought for issues such as standard working hours, has lost more than a third of members and more than half of its governing board.
They have quit over suggestions from one of its key mobilisers, veteran lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung who said the group was running out of money to finance a committee fighting for workers’ rights.
That, coupled with the emergence of political differences between Leung and younger members of the group, led to the mass resignations.
And things could get even worse, with key member district councillor Ivan Wong Yun-tat also believed to be on the brink of leaving.
Wong, who was tipped to succeed Leung but lost in the 2016 Legislative Council elections, declined to comment and only said “everyone has their own way forward”.
Leung, 65, has been the face of the NWSC since the 1980s, when it set up centres in Kwai Fong to help the poor fight for their livelihoods and working rights.
The NWSC has tried to regroup itself with a younger leadership, while taking a more proactive approach to social issues. The departures come as a major blow to that reform.
Of the 22 members who left, many were young people who joined after the 2014 Occupy movement. They slammed Leung for his suggestion to scrap the committee, which was dedicated to organising protests, and also liaising with workers and other labour rights groups.
They argued that the closure of the committee could affect three paid staff members on the governing board of the NWSC, as well as contradict Leung’s own election manifesto to protect labour rights.
Tension within the NWSC grew as Leung was reluctant to speak to younger members after the idea of scrapping the committee was first suggested in March.
“I asked Leung whether I would be paid this month. He wouldn’t answer and said I could check the bank account at the end of the month,” said Billy Lai Chi-po, who has worked for the committee since 2009.
The trouble continued earlier this month, as five members of the NWSC’s executive board, including newly elected chairman Chan Yu-sze, also resigned in protest against Leung’s proposal. The governing board was left with just three members.
At a press conference on Friday, reporters, citing claims by the three that they had been dismissed, pressed Leung on the matter. A defiant Leung denied the accusations, saying he had merely looked into the finances of the labour committee to review its annual budget of HK$700,000, a figure that included staff salaries.
“I can’t understand why [staff members] keep saying we have dismissed them,” Leung said. “We are still paying them.”
He said a task force would examine whether to keep the committee, and no conclusion had been reached so far.
Leung, a lawmaker for more than 20 years, also acknowledged the ideological differences between himself and younger members in the NWSC.
He said he would not speculate whether differences over strategy for the next Legco elections in 2020 was a major cause of the split, as he had not made up his mind on running in the polls.
“I don’t know why they are so worried [about election strategy] though,” Leung said. “Last term I was prepared to pass the torch, and already did so by switching to another constituency.”
However, Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said Leung’s reluctance to clearly pave the way for new blood to rise may be an underlying cause of the rift.
“Leung has been around for 20 to 30 years and there are signs he may run another term,” Choy said. “This may well upset the younger generation within the group.”
The row comes amid the financial burden faced by the NWSC.
The group presently runs training courses for the unemployed or less privileged, and Leung contributes half of his Legco salary and fees to its operations, which roughly amounts to HK$280,000 monthly.
The figure is not enough to meet NWSC’s budget, and it still needs another HK$50,000 to HK$70,000 a month that has to be sourced from donations.
Another staff member So Yiu-cheong said the group, facing a funding shortfall of HK$800,000, applied to the Employees Retraining Board in March but was denied a funding request.
He said Leung had to “come up with the funds in a few days just to fill the gap”.
Although that problem was resolved, the drop in donations in recent years has forced Leung to tighten the purse strings, a move seen as ultimately sparking the present dispute.