Several thousand Hong Kong activists hit the streets yesterday in May Day marches to protest over soaring rent and food prices there.
The demonstration came as Hong Kong ushered in its first minimum wage at HK$28 (US$3.60), a controversial measure that has divided labor and business groups for years.
Union critics hailed the pay floor as a step forward, but said it was not high enough for many low-income families struggling to make ends meet. Business groups have warned that the law will lead to widespread job losses among poor workers in the densely populated territory of 7 million, regularly credited as having the freest economy in the world.
Chanting slogans and banging drums and cymbals, the activists staged a noisy procession in the heart of downtown Hong Kong to demand stronger labor laws, with their ranks swelling to 4,000 by organizers’ estimates.
“Put an end to worker exploitation,” they called out in unison. “Paid rest days, raise salaries, fight inflation, resume public housing.”
An even larger protest was scheduled for yesterday afternoon, while thousands were also expected to march in Macau, the world’s biggest gambling hub. Like Hong Kong, the former Portuguese colony has seen property prices soar as critics worry about its gambling dependent economy.
A separate protest of about a dozen activists called for the release of detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未).
Hong Kong’s government has pledged to sell off more public land in a bid to cool red-hot property prices that have put home ownership out of reach for many residents.
Concern over Hong Kong’s growing income gap — which the UN Development Programme pegged in 2009 as the world’s widest among wealthy economies — prompted the government to usher in the new wage floor.
Many countries already have minimum wage legislation in place, with hourly rates in New York and London set between US$7.25 and US$9.90.
“We are in a new age — the implementation of the minimum wage is a big step forward for local labor rights,” said Pan Pey-chyou (潘佩璆), a legislator and a vice chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU).
Stanley Ng (吳永輝), the union’s chairman, called the new law a “victory.”
“Workers should be able to share society’s fruits of labor,” he said.
Hong Kong is famous for its free market economy and stunningly wealthy tycoons whose business empires span all sectors of the local economy and the world. However, the city is also home to hundreds of thousands of workers who live on hourly wages at times as low as US$2 an hour.
“Poverty is a very serious problem among our base-line workers and it is important for us to stand up and speak out today,” Ng said.
The union said it worried employers would try to circumvent the law by changing staff contracts to cut benefits and paid rest days.
“Hong Kong lags behind other countries in terms of protecting labor rights,” Pan said. “And there are still a lot of issues that need to be addressed. That’s why we have to keep pushing for labor rights.”
Hong Kong’s labor boss acknowledged that “teething problems are inevitable in launching a major initiative of such magnitude.”
“We are entering uncharted waters in Hong Kong’s social development,” Hong Kong Secretary for Labor and Welfare Matthew Cheung (張建宗) said in a statement.