Spotlight Interview with Lee Cheuk yan (Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions - Hong Kong SAR)

Just after Handover the handpicked Provisional Legislative Council abolished the laws (...)

Spotlight Interview with Lee Cheuk yan, General Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, Hong Kong SAR Legislative Council Member.

What has been the most important change in Hong Kong?

Just after Handover the handpicked Provisional Legislative Council abolished the laws on collective bargaining and other laws so the workers in Hong Kong were left without any rights in collective bargaining. It is difficult after 1997 to re-introduce a law on collective bargaining because under the mini-constitution, the Basic Law, legislators are no longer allowed to introduce Private Members Bills so this democratic tool for legislating for better labour laws is impossible - before Handover we could introduce such bills to force change upon the government.

The second most important change is that there are more and more interventions from the Chinese central government who are trying to delay the right of the Hong Kong people to universal suffrage. For example the year 2004, the government brutally intervened in Hong Kong through the reinterpretation of the Basic Law by the NPC and ruled out universal suffrage by the year 20007/2008. This means that any reform and progress towards universal suffrage has been delayed - even now after ten years we still do not know the road map to full democracy and the timeline.

Is there any way Hong Kong will be able to regain some of those laws and rights repealed after the Handover?

We of course keep on campaigning for the reintroduction of these laws and we also complained to the ILO who gave some firm recommendations to the government in our favour. But as of now the government has still not listened and followed these recommendations. To introduce such laws by legislation is not possible so we need to keep up the pressure. But before this we also need to break the collusion between big business and government – this is why universal suffrage is so key to the development of workers rights in Hong Kong.

Has the situation for the average Hong Kong worker got worse or has it improved since 1997?

It has got far worse. Firstly because of the economic downturn shortly after Handover, workers wages and benefits were drastically reduced and we saw a lot of lay-offs during the downturn. Now with the current economic recovery the employers are still squeezing the workers without letting them share in the prosperity so workers are far less well off than they were ten years ago – by contrast the upper classes in Hong Kong are far wealthier.

Are trade unions growing in Hong Kong and what are they focusing on right now?

In past ten years the HKCTU has been able to organise many more members. We now have around 85 affiliated unions with a total of around 170,000 members which is around double the number in 1997. In 1997 we only had around 40 affiliates. We now have a foothold in most industries.

What is the situation as regards collective bargaining in Hong Kong?

The workers have right to organise but the employer does not have to recognise the union nor their right to collective bargaining. For example, very recently we worked with bus drivers who had obtained the support of some 70 percent of drivers in a recent industrial dispute. The company – New World Bus Company – refused to bargain with us and instead concluded an agreement with a minority union. This is collective bargaining in bad faith - and this then this forces us to consider industrial action.

Why is democracy so important to you and the HKCTU

Without democracy Hong Kong society is totally imbalanced. Just imagine - the business groups control the election of the Chief Executive and many of the legislative councillors so they effectively control Hong Kong and have the political power to resist labour law changes, indeed to resist any measures to narrow the income inequality. They also resist democratic reforms because they want to protect their interests, so for the workers, the men in the street whose living standards keep on falling, more and more working poor find it hard to live and yet the government still resists extending a helping hand and introducing a minimum wage.

The fight for minimum wage is also a fight for democracy. With a more democratic system, the ruling government has to listen to the people more. Secondly more democracy in Hong Kong will also be a litmus test for the tolerance for democracy for the Chinese govt. If government doesn’t allow Hong Kong, with a population of around 6.5 million people to have democracy how then will they ever allow democracy to develop inside the mainland with its population of 1.3 billion?

What will happen once you achieve democracy? Are there implications for China and workers inside China?

If Hong Kong can achieve democracy it will be a testing ground for China and a demonstration that democracy does work and does promote prosperity and stability which is very much in contradiction to what has always been preached by the central authorities. It is their myth that with democracy there will be chaos and this has always been the excuse for the Chinese Communist party not to introduce democracy - in the name of stability and prosperity. But if Hong Kong can prove that stability, prosperity and democracy supplement each other and work hand in hand, which in fact is what happens all over the world, then we have a better case to show that China itself should be more democratic. With more democracy in China then we would also expect there will be more opening up and greater chances for Chinese workers to obtain freedom of association and other labour rights currently denied them.

What is the major union focus right now for workers and the HKCTU?

Our major focus is on labour law changes, especially in the two very important issues that affect the livelihood of workers. One is introducing a proper safety net and a minimum wage and the second is legislation on working hours so there can be reduction in working hours and an increase in overtime premiums for workers. Otherwise we will keep on seeing what we currently see – that working hours increase year by year, breaking up working families.

What is the position of the Pro-Beijing Federation of Trade unions? What are they doing to support workers in Hong Kong?

Their major policy is to follow Beijing and therefore they are against any democratic reforms unless China says yes –in effect they are selling out the workers rights to democracy. Of course they will try to gain support though supporting the same issues that the HKCTU supports like minimum wage, working hours and collective bargaining but people of Hong Kong are quite clear about the fact that in 1997 the FTU voted against the law on collective bargaining in 1997 and later voted for its abolition shortly after Handover. Instead of supporting Democracy they try to gain more members by providing social benefits for workers – the most recent example is an offer of free insurance coverage of up to HK$200,000 for new members.

Are there parallels to the situation in China?

The President of the FTU is a member of the National People’s Congress and also a member of the Executive Council – this essentially mirrors the structure of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) in China. The head of the ACFTU is also representative of the ruling Politburo and like the ACFTU, the FTU remains essentially a state controlled and state organised structure.

Most outside observers would say that these past ten years have proved the success of the one country two systems policy – how do you feel about this?

They don’t understand what has happened in Hong Kong because politically we are still very much under control of the communist party and the central authorities. The “One country-two systems” policy does not include political freedom, only economic freedoms. It is very similar to the situation in China; if you do business or make money in China then the authorities leave you alone, but once you start talking of rights, democracy and worker organising then the clamp down starts. In Hong Kong it is the same. We have “one country-Two systems” in terms of the economy but if we talk of democracy then the emphasis sifts to “One country” and the philosophy of “two systems” is undermined.

27 June 2007 Dominique Muller, Hong Kong IHLO