Letter to Hong Kong – Lame Duck Government Refused to tackle Income Inequality

RTHK Radio3 2007-09-02

All of us have experiences of getting stuck in a traffic jam. Imagine you are held up in a traffic jam for a long time. When you see that the traffic in the next lane has started moving, you will feel good even though your lane remains still, for you believe that the traffic jam is broken and that you, too, will move soon. However, if after waiting for five minutes, an hour or even longer, and your lane of traffic is still held up by the congestion, while you can see that the vehicles in the next lane keep moving forward, you will then feel a strong sense of unfairness, severe grievances and even a fit of rage. You may at some point lose your patience and ready to correct manifest injustice by taking direct action (such as illegally crossing the double line separating the two lanes).

Two or three years ago, when Hong Kong ’ s economy started to re-bounce from its rock bottom during the SARS outbreak, many people expected that the good days would come very soon, though they were not benefited immediately. So the general atmosphere in society was relatively tolerant and optimistic. However, if some sectors of the society do not benefit from the recovery after one year, two years or even three years, then they would start feeling strongly uneasy, and the grievances would start to emerge in society again.

When does the feel-good factor turn bad and people start resorting to some sort of action? It is almost impossible to tell in advance in any specific context. What ’ s sure is that it happens as a result of the passage of time, and possibly without notice. Yes, without notice.

Without notice one thousand bar benders went on the longest strike in recent Hong Kong labour movement history, causing work stoppage in fifty to seventy construction sites. When this letter is broadcasted, the strike may still be going on, entering its 26th day. The anger and sense of injustice that sustained the strike is the same anger shared by many workers in Hong Kong feeling that they were left out in the sharing of the economic growth. This explained why there is so much sympathy among the people of Hong Kong though the strike was heavily critcised by the media. When I first contacted the strikers, almost all of them tried to explain to me this is not a fight for wage increase or reduction of working hours. The word “ wage increase ” is unacceptable because their demands are only to fix their wage level back to the 1995 level of HK$950 for casual workers. They have enjoyed a wage level of HK$1200 in the year 1997 but then forced to take wage cut three times a year in the year 2004 and was squeezed down to the present level of HK$800. It was the same for their working hours when the employers increased the traditional eight hours day to eight and a half hours day without any prior negotiation or consultation.

The Chairman of the Hong Kong Contractors Association tried to argue that the Construction Industry had not recovered and in terms of total annual contract sum is only about half of the peak when it was about one hundred billions dollars. This of course is a fact but at the same tome one cannot disregard the fact that the property prices have also peaked to a very high level. The profit margins for property developers were about 20% to 40%. There is ample space for improving the wages of the workers. It is the subcontracting system and the bidding system that are squeezing the workers. They have every right to fight back and asked for more form the property tycoons. In the resolution to the dispute, all parties concerned should bear their responsibility. The Government as a buyer, the property developers, the Contractors and the subcontractors should all play their role in ensuring a fair share for construction workers.

This strike will come and go but not the anger and frustrations of millions of workers that felt left out of the share of the prosperity. Will the Chief Executive Donald Tsang learn a lesson form this strike? Will he finally realize that you cannot just leave it to the market to work out a fair share for the workers? Will he take heed of the repeated warnings by the trade unions that income inequality in the society is a time bomb that will lead to instability? Are there any determination on his part to tackle the widening gap between the rich and poor? He has not spoken a word since the dispute. He should answer the above questions and tackle the issues head on instead of performing like a lame duck Government.

When the market failed, the Government should come in. The role of any government should be to ensure the well being of its citizens and its hard working citizens can share in the prosperity created. To ensure a fairer share of the prosperity under a free market economy, any society needs a safety net and a healthy collective bargaining environment. The safety net is the legislation for minimum wage which we have been fighting hard for. This will help in providing those workers with the least bargaining power with a minimum floor of wage level and will account for about 10% of the working population. For the rest of the workforce, we need a system of collective bargaining whereby trade unions representing the workers can bargain with the employers or employer ’ association in good faith. The rights of workers to collective bargaining had been proven all over the world to be an effective mechanism to ensure workers get a fair share of the wealth they helped created and is also an internationally recognized workers rights under the International Labour Convention No. 87 and 98 ratified also by Hong Kong. But regrettably the Hong Kong government failed to implement the ILO Convention and refused to promote genuine collective bargaining through legislation.

Without a system of collective bargaining installed by legislation, workers in Hong Kong can only resort to strike or industrial action to strengthen their bargaining position. In Chinese we have a saying: ” one won ’ t cry without seeing the coffin ” . Is the Government and business elites want to see more strike before they agree to legislate on collective bargaining? I have put forward a law on collective bargaining in 1997 and was passed but abolished by the Ting Chee Wah Administration. We will continue to fight for the law on collective bargaining and in the mean time continue to organize workers to fight for better wages and working conditions. We are ready, are you ready?