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Hong Kong’s Trade Unions Are Under Attack

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions has dissolved after months of media and government attacks. It’s a blow to worker organization across China.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) voted on October 3 to disband. Here, committee members hold hands as they pose for one last photo as the HKCTU committee. (Tsz Yuk Alex Chan / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

On October 3, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) gathered its ninety-plus affiliated unions representing just under two hundred thousand workers in Hong Kong to vote on the dissolution of the confederation. Months of sustained attacks in the pro-Beijing media and the arrest of HKCTU leaders for their roles in the Hong Kong protest movement of 2019–2020 rendered the dissolution a foregone conclusion. The vote was decisive: after thirty-one years, the HKCTU was finished.

The campaign against the HKCTU is part of a broader assault on Hong Kong’s civil society that has resulted in a succession of mass arrests and the dissolution of organizations under the threat of persecution. The legal framework for the assault is the new national security law that was imposed by Beijing on July 1, 2020. The latest targets in this crackdown are trade unions and labor rights groups. One month before the HKCTU vote, its largest affiliate, the Professional Teachers’ Union, also dissolved after forty-seven years following media attacks and ongoing threats of legal prosecution. Likewise, the Asia Monitor Resource Centre, a regional organization that has promoted workers’ rights and grassroots unions for more than a half century, recently announced the closure of its Hong Kong office.

The press conference announcing the HKCTU’s dissolution ended with a rendition of solidarity forever in Cantonese and English.

Trade unionists around the world working in authoritarian environments, where anti-labor sentiment is laced with the threat of persecution and real violence, will recognize and understand the logic behind the HKCTU’s dissolution. The confederation cited concerns over the personal safety of union leaders such as Lee Cheuk-yan, Carol Ng, and Winnie Yu as a main driver of its decision.

Steeped in a culture of grassroots organizing, the HKCTU was at the core of campaigns against the isolation and atomization of neoliberalism; for collective bargaining, a living wage, and improved trade union and labor laws; and for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, as well as labor rights and freedom of association across China. Its dissolution is a setback for all trade unionists, in Hong Kong and beyond.

The Rise of Independent Trade Unionism in Hong Kong

The founding of the HKCTU in 1990 was driven not only by systemic social inequalities and exploitation in colonial Hong Kong but also by class struggles occurring in the People’s Republic of China during the ascent of neoliberalism. Some of the emerging leaders of the new confederation had been in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 democracy movement. Prior to its repression, they witnessed the brief rise of Workers’ Autonomous Federations and supported the calls for independent working-class agency in China.

As the end of the British colonial era approached, independent trade unions in Hong Kong united to form a new confederation that identified itself with the struggle for democratic reforms in both the Hong Kong and mainland China. Demands for basic rights in Hong Kong such as universal suffrage were regarded as indivisible from the promotion of working-class economic interests.

In the context of colonialism and an absence of institutionalized collective bargaining, the HKCTU’s challenges were exacerbated by a deindustrialization process that, according to scholars Sek Hong Ng and Olivia Ip, “drastically curtailed the size (in both absolute and relative terms) of Hong Kong’s industrial employment — the bastion of the traditional working class.”

Faced with these obstacles, the newly formed confederation focused, in its own words, on four directions: “strengthen unions to fight for labor rights; protect human rights and foster democracy; partake in social issues for the interests of the grassroots; unite all workers in the world and foster international collaboration.”

Against Colonial Legacies 

Despite timid expansions of suffrage in Hong Kong in the run-up to the 1997 handover, the colony remained in the shadow of a colonial authority with little democratic legitimacy and an economy in which capitalists were subject to few regulatory constraints.

Additionally, the forces of labor in Hong Kong were split along political lines. Back in 1948, two new federations were formed, with the pro-CPC Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) on one side and the Hong Kong and Kowloon Trades Union Council, supporting nationalist forces, on the other. By the 1990s, the latter’s influence had faded, and the HKCTU rapidly established itself as the main rival to FTU dominance. By then, the FTU had abandoned its anti-colonial politics and adopted instead a narrative of stability that emphasized national interests over class solidarity.

In one of his final acts as the last governor of Hong Kong, budding Conservative Party grandee Chris Patten begrudgingly signed off on two pro-labor laws that the HKCTU had campaigned for, one of which included provisions for collective bargaining. But the rival FTU supported their immediate cancellation under postcolonial Hong Kong’s first chief executive, the shipping magnate Tung Chee-Hwa.

The FTU got its way and, as always, Hong Kong’s workers were the losers. While collective bargaining does not solve systemic inequality, it would have been a good start to addressing a major legacy of British colonialism. Instead, inequality worsened after the return to Chinese sovereignty. Workers of all types struggled to maintain their standing in a rapidly changing economy — steel fixers’ wages dropped from a daily rate of HK$1200 for an eight-hour day in 1997 to HK$800 for an 8.5-hour day in 2007.

The decline in wages and longer hours, facilitated by the absence of centralized collective bargaining, led to a dramatic strike by those steel fixers across the city, supported by HKCTU. It also led to the founding of an independent union, the Bar-Bending Industry Workers’ Solidarity Union.

As one strike leader put it, “We were very united, because we had been exploited for so long and forced to accept undignified life and treatment from management.” Annual negotiations, in part driven by this show of militancy, led to a sustained rise across the sector of 10 percent a year until 2014.

Leading the Minimum Wage Campaign

The HKCTU was a key player in the battle for a minimum wage in the city. The confederation set up the Hong Kong People’s Alliance for a Minimum Wage (the Alliance), which the chief executive at the time rebuffed in favor of a voluntary mechanism that unsurprisingly had little impact. The FTU had also been calling for a minimum wage but, in keeping with a stability-first approach, had not campaigned on the issue.

In contrast to the FTU, the HKCTU organized May Day marches and regular demonstrations for a statutory minimum wage and was uncompromising in calling out employers for paying poverty wages. Their campaign met with victory on May Day of 2011, when the Hong Kong government introduced a statutory minimum wage. HKCTU general secretary Lee Cheuk-yan — who is currently imprisoned for unauthorized assembly — was scornful of the objections from pro-business leaders, saying, “Internationally, free marketers will feel they lost the last champion of the free economy, but so what? It is quite absurd. People can work ten, twelve, fourteen, or even sixteen hours a day without getting paid overtime.”

In fact, Hong Kong has retained its status as one of the freest market economies in the world. Grassroots campaigning for a living wage has continued, with HKCTU organizers playing a key role. Backed by academic research, the Alliance has criticized the government for “insulting” low-paid workers by freezing the statutory minimum wage at just under HK$35 per hour in 2021, and called for the rate to be set at just under HK$55 per hour in order to meet daily necessities.

Supporting Worker Struggles

In addition to campaigning for critical legislation, the HKCTU has supported some of the most important labor struggles in Hong Kong over the past three decades.

One of the earliest was an extraordinary strike organized by members of one of its affiliates, the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union (FAU). On January 23, 1993, more than three thousand cabin crew workers employed by Cathay Pacific struck for seventeen days. They demanded a reduction of excessive working hours, which often stretched to sixty-five hours a week, and the reinstatement of three employees who were fired for refusing to work overtime.

The FAU won a historic victory and has maintained a proud record of collective action ever since. Consequently, both capital and state have had the FAU in their sights in recent years. FAU chairwoman Rebecca Sy was fired in 2019 for writing Facebook posts supporting the struggle for universal suffrage. A total of thirty-six people from the aviation industry have been let go for similar reasons, and HKCTU chairwoman Carol Ng — herself a former union representative at British Airways — is in detention facing charges under Hong Kong’s fearsome national security law for taking part in unofficial election primaries.

Probably the most significant struggle in the last decade was the 2013 dock workers’ strike organised by the HKCTU affiliate Union of Hong Kong Dockers (UHKD). The strike was led by five hundred dockworkers employed across five companies at the Hongkong International Terminals (HIT). The port is owned by Hutchison Port Holdings, whose chairman, Li Ka-shing, is one of Asia’s richest men. The outsourced workers suffered appalling working conditions, with shifts that could last twenty-four hours on wages that were lower than they had been in 1997.

The HKCTU provided three full-time organizers throughout the strike. According to former UHKD general secretary Stanley Ho, one of the main challenges at the time was providing for the livelihood of the dockworkers, as the strike lasted forty days. The HKCTU worked with grassroots and student organizations to collect almost HK$1 million, a dramatic outpouring of public support for the strikers that testified to the zeitgeist at the time: a general disgust with Hong Kong’s growing inequality, which the unions articulated in leaflets and articles.

A court injunction ended the initial occupation of the dock itself, so the HKDU and the strikers set up a “dockworkers village” of tents around the terminal. It drew hundreds of supporters throughout the strike, including the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union. Waterfront unions around the world expressed support and even flew to Hong Kong to visit the village and show their solidarity in person. The long struggle ended with a 9.8 percent pay rise, meal breaks, and written promises from HIT management and subcontractors not to retaliate against the strikers (which some subcontractors subsequently broke).

The 2019 Protests and the New Union Movement

From taking up the issue of universal suffrage to participating in legislative council elections, serving in the legislature, and cofounding the Labour Party in 2012, the HKCTU has never shied away from participating in the democratic politics of Hong Kong. Thus, it was no surprise that the confederation supported calls for a general strike during the citywide 2019 movement for universal suffrage, which saw marches of over one million people.

One of the key features of this momentous, sustained, confrontational, and ultimately repressed movement was the emergence of a wave of new independent unions, in part catalyzed by a one-day strike of over six hundred thousand workers. The new unions had mixed aims, ranging from laying the groundwork for further strikes in pursuit of universal suffrage to gaining representation on Hong Kong’s Labour Advisory Board (LAB) — an effort effectively countered by the FTU. (The latter encouraged pro-government employees and citizens to register hundreds of tiny new unions under the umbrella of the FTU, thus ensuring they had the numbers to maintain a majority on the LAB.)

Former organizer and HKCTU vice president Leo Tang was jailed for his participation in the protests. Writing from prison in late 2020, he said that that the potential to “liberate workers from being dictated to and dominated in the workplace so that they could contribute to the ‘wider’ movement is precisely the significance that the new labor movement holds for the masses.”

The wave of organizing generated much debate among labor scholars and activists. Some argued that the first wave of independent new unions was driven by the same democratic spirit that animated the HKCTU and its affiliates. Indeed, the HKCTU served as an important anchor for some new unions, providing organizing support and experienced guidance. For example, the HKCTU set up leafleting and recruitment stalls with new unions such as the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) on May Day 2021. HAEA chairwoman Winnie Yu is currently on bail awaiting trial for charges similar to those alleged against HKCTU chair Carol Ng.

For other observers, once it became clear that participation in the LAB was a nonstarter, the new unions “weren’t going to focus on getting involved in city politics. Instead, they were going to work with their membership: their goal was participatory democracy, not electoral democracy.”

The new independent unions’ scope and strategy remain uncertain. What is clear is that they will have a much tougher time surviving now that the HKCTU has been forced to dissolve.

Since its dissolution, former and current members and leaders of the HKCTU have been sharing their reflections on the confederation’s legacy and what lies ahead. They have emphasized that, while the HKCTU may be gone, workers’ struggles will continue. As one former leader remarked:

Even without the HKCTU, its spirits and values will remain and not disappear. Whenever workers are oppressed, there will be labor movements. One organization may be dissolved or eradicated, but its belief will be long in people’s heart. . . . Although the HKCTU is dissolved, the seeds of our belief in an independent trade union free from government manipulation have already been spread across every corner of this land.

Capitalist labor relations, anywhere in the world, will generate class struggle. The hopefully temporary absence of the HKCTU does not mean that its smaller affiliates will simply fold. But it does mean that organizing and supporting independent trade unions that build working-class confidence becomes an even more important task of the labor movement.