Wed, Jan 15, 2020 - Page 9 News List

Hong Kongers flocking to join new trade unions as a protest tactic

Dozens of new unions have formed since June last year, the strongest push to unionize since the 1997 handover, as a way of protecting workers from pressure on their firms from the CCP

By Sarah Wu  /  Reuters, HONG KONG

Illustration: Mountain People

Before the Hong Kong protests began in June last year, Chris Ngai spent most of his free time playing World of Warcraft and finding new cocktail recipes. Now the bespectacled 24-year-old junior engineer is launching a trade union.

His aim is to ramp up pressure on Hong Kong’s government, which has so far made no political concessions to protesters’ demands for greater democracy in the territory, despite millions of people marching in the street.

“The ongoing pro-democracy movement has fundamentally changed people’s lives,” Ngai said the day before he set up a booth along the route of a Jan. 1 march to sign up new members. “It has forced many who were ignorant about society to stand up.”

As violent clashes with police become more common, the pro-democracy movement has reached a point of “anger and hopelessness” and needs new tactics, Ngai said.

Ngai said he and his team persuaded about 90 engineers, architects and construction workers to join his Hong Kong Construction and Engineering Employees General Union in the past month.

His booth was only one of dozens along the 4km route of the New Year’s Day march, each with a distinct flag and logo, attracting lines of hundreds of people to join new unions for civil servants, hotel staff, theater professionals and others.

Ngai and his fellow organizers are spearheading the biggest push to unionize the laissez-faire, ultra-capitalist finance mecca — where collective bargaining rights are not even recognized — since Britain handed the territory back in 1997.

They are also at the forefront of the ever-experimenting Hong Kong pro-democracy movement as it looks for more effective forms of protest.

“The movement has been thriving on its ad-hoc character,” said Ma Ngok (馬嶽), a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Now more people think the movement may be a long haul, so they need a more organized base to sustain it.”

About 40 pro-democracy unions, including Ngai’s, have formed in recent months or are in the process of registering with the government, with dozens more starting to organize, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) said.

The confederation, which last month started running crash courses on establishing unions, said about 2,000 people have already joined unions this year and thousands more joined late last year.

The territory has a population of about 7.4 million.

The Hong Kong Labour Department records show that 25 new unions registered last year, compared to 13 in 2018. Of those, 18 formed in the second half of the year, as protests escalated.

Like many new protest tactics, the call to unionize first spread via the encrypted messaging app Telegram, where a channel promoting labor organization has grown to more than 74,000 subscribers in less than three months.

Traditional unions in Hong Kong are seen by residents primarily as clubs for hobby classes, banquets and retail discounts. The new unions are motivated more by protecting workers from being punished by employers for expressing their views.

About two months after protests began in June over a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions of criminal suspects to China, protesters got a wake-up call on Beijing’s powers of coercion.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China demanded that Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific suspend staff involved in or supporting demonstrations.

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