Working Hours: HK Unions Need A Wake-up Call

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(This article was originally published on April 2, 2016 on fragrantdelta.)


When news broke that angry worker’s representatives had besieged the most recent meeting of Hong Kong’s Standard Working Hours Committee (SWHC) last week, it seemed that all the media could cover was a torrent of self-righteous accusations from labor movement leaders.

In particular, workers’ representatives are incensed that the committee and its controversial chairman, Leong Che-hung, has decided to push ahead with a second round of public consultation on standard working hours despite the 27 November walkout and subsequent boycott of six of the committee’s worker representatives.

Labor advocates’ exasperation is understandable. Unions and social groups have been calling on the Hong Kong government to develop standard working hours legislation for over a decade. In his January 2005 Policy Address then-Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen declared that policymakers would seek consensus over the matter. They have not yet found it.

They have, however, dragged labor groups into years of meetings to discuss standard working hours proposals, first through the toothless Labour Advisory Board, and now through the SWHC. The most workers’ representatives have won is an SWHC recommendation that working hours be stipulated in employment contracts – not quite what they had in mind.

In policymaking, full stakeholder consensus is desirable but is rarely achieved, hence the usefulness of government moderation. Effective governments have the power to compel compromises that yield optimal results. Consensus building can help determine where the optimal point lies.

On the other hand, drawn-out consensus-building processes may provide governments a pretext to evade responsibility for making politically damaging decisions. Even worse, if one stakeholder group succeeds in co-opting the moderator, further discussion may merely confer a patina of consensus, thereby worsening social rifts.

Leong Che-hung did the government no favors when he announced that the SWHC would continue its work following the walkout, despite his view that the end result would be “flawed”. While the SWHC has no obligation to cease meetings when worker representatives stomp their feet, Leong’s admission raises delicate questions: Are employer views really all that Leong needs? And are “flawed” recommendations a suitable basis for policymaking?

Labour and Welfare Bureau representatives also sit on the committee. Their silence is deafening.

A History of Disunion

In this sad tale, the most tragic reality has been overlooked. Hong Kong’s labor unions and related groups have not only forgotten the game they are playing, but, in a most un-union-like fashion, they’ve forgotten that they do not have to use an establishment playbook to get what they want. The November walkout should have been the start of a coordinated strategy to convince the government that it shares workers’ interests. Instead, labor leaders seem to prefer a long wait for divine intervention.

History suggests some reasons for this latest bout of navel-gazing. For over a century, Hong Kong’s unions have functioned less as organs of worker solidarity within enterprises than as general working class movements, organized within politicized and competing ideological blocs.

Their negotiating skills also suffered greatly following a mid-20th century population influx, when an abundance of low-skilled labor rendered many employers impervious to union demands. Hong Kong unions mainly became service providers to needy members, a model that continued through the late-1980s.

Today, an ideological rift persists, evidenced by a clear alignment of unions under umbrella political organizations with either pro-establishment or pan-democrat affiliations. The largest union umbrellas have even been coopted under the Legislative Council and other official bodies.

Captured, divided and unaccustomed to driving hard bargains, today’s unions are relatively docile beasts that, nevertheless, maintain valuable employee networks as well as direct access to the political system. If they could put ideological differences behind them and coordinate action, they would be a profound political force.

Strength in Numbers

There is no reason why Hong Kong’s unions and their allies cannot bring about standard working hours legislation in short order.

First of all, over a decade of consultation feedback and survey data exists, and much of it is highly favorable to their cause. The SWHC’s own territory-wide survey for mid-2014 reveals that over three-quarters of 10,000-plus employee respondents agree with setting maximum working hours, with over two-thirds supporting establishment of standard working hours. As for employers, 56.1 percent agree with the establishment of standard working hours.

Employers demonstrated less enthusiasm for this topic in the SWHC’s concurrent consultation exercises. Nevertheless, the committee claims that, “Employees generally expressed their aspirations for legislating working hours regulation.” This should be all labor advocates need to make their case. After all, workers are their constituents.

Second, this issue has already provoked some measure of unity across the ideological divide. Both pro-establishment- and pan-democrat-affiliated union members participated in the November walkout. For instance, one of the most vocal critics of the SWHC is Stanley Ng Chau-pei, Chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and a founding member of the Occupy Central-opposing Alliance for Peace and Democracy.

Finally, if existing union umbrellas can bring member unions and their individual members into line, the government could be subjected to overwhelming pressure.

Unions currently occupy three dedicated LegCo functional constituency seats plus two seats in non-labor functional constituencies. Overall, there are eight union-affiliated legislators. In addition, labor groups hold 60 votes in the Election Committee that chooses the Chief Executive. As the next election may be contested and competitive, their 5 percent voter share is nothing to downplay.

Finally, unions do still maintain well-developed networks of individuals – a legacy of years of service provision and local political organization. In total, union affiliated Hongkongers surpass one-fifth of the territory’s population, more than enough to overwhelm labor and security officials with complaints and protests, even if a fraction of individuals is suitably organized.

New Approach Needed?

The Hong Kong government has difficulty enough managing the split between the pro-establishment and pan-democrat camps. The last thing it needs is the prospect of unified recalcitrance over this or other labor-specific issues.

As for mainland leaders, Beijing will not want to risk a long term and damaging rift between pro-establishment unions and the local government over something as simple as standard working hours legislation, which, incidentally, the mainland already enforces. If unions could demonstrate a real ability to undermine more important pro-establishment policy objectives through non-compliance, the local government might soon find itself under significant pressure to demonstrate flexibility.

Sustained cooperation between ideologically divided union groups may seem like a tall order, but this is beside the point. If Hong Kong labor activists feel like discarded marionettes in a government-backed working hours consultation sideshow, perhaps it’s time they tried a different approach.