The cause of labour is Hong Kong’s hope

The voice of the labour movement has been ignored in the international media coverage of Hong Kong’s Occupy protest. Trade unions have taken to the street not only in the name of universal suffrage, but for the sake of social justice.

Jennifer Cheung
6 October 2014
Protesters in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy protesters in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong. Demotix/Guillaume Payen. All rights reserved.As Hong Kong’s fight for genuine universal suffrage enters its second week, the original wave of student-led unrest has spiralled into something more uncontrollable. We have seen police fire tear gas at civilians and arrest ‘trouble-makers’, while the civil disobedience movement has itself spread from Admiralty (the city’s political centre) to the popular shopping areas of Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui, and Mong Kok. Violent physical confrontations broke out on Friday, between anti-Occupy factions and pro-democracy protesters.

But one significant voice overlooked by both the local and international media has been that of the labour movement. On 29 September, the first day of the general strike, unions representing dock workers, bus drivers, beverage workers, social workers, domestic workers, migrant domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, radio producers, and teachers took to the streets. They are not only protesting against the police suppression of the students. They are not only campaigning for universal suffrage. They are also demonstrating a more down-to-earth wish: social justice.

There is an increasingly common belief among Hong Kong’s less socially and financially privileged citizens that the widening income gap and escalating property prices are due to collusion between the city’s senior government officials and business tycoons. And this year’s social movement to resist Beijing’s manipulation over Hong Kong’s political elections has given workers a good opportunity to voice their dissatisfactions and anger over a manifestly unfair and exploitative social system. They are fighting for a democracy that they hope will usher in justice for the city’s working class. 

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), the major organiser of the general strike, called the current government an “autocracy” in its declaration on 29 September. HKCTU announced that as long as all the workers in Hong Kong rise up, the totalitarian government will have to kneel down: “The standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) must withdraw the fake universal suffrage plan. The Hong Kong government must restart political consultation.  The Hong Kong government’s policy-making in the past has been severely in favour of the local business community, and we workers have been requesting to address this critical problem through a fair and unselective election. The NPC’s fake plan is merely putting new wine in old bottles. ”

In response to HKCTU’s appeal for a general strike, the union of Swire Beverages, which bottles and distributes Coca-Cola, decided to go on strike on 29 September: “We cannot leave the students alone to fight against police violence and suppression from the hegemonic authority. To uphold democracy and justice, the Union called for an urgent council meeting this morning and has decided to go on strike to urge the government to respond to the people’s demand for democracy.”

Hong Kong’s Dockers Union, which held a month-long strike action last year for better labour conditions, said in its 29 September statement: “A year ago, students stood out for us. And now, we will stand for them. Today we are allowed to have a 15 minute break and to go to the toilet during work. It is all because students stood out and fought with us. I decide to strike today, support student classroom boycotts, and I won’t go back to work tonight. This is my own decision, and I understand I might get fired. But I am clear in what I am doing!”

According to HKCTU’s estimates, over 2000 workers from the social welfare sector joined the strike on 29 September. The Brussels-based Equal Times, supported by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), reported that some 10,000 workers across all sectors in Hong Kong have downed their tools.

HKCTU’s call for a general strike has also garnered support from the international union community. ITUC–Asia Pacific, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), International Union of Food Workers, Swedish Food Workers Union, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, and other international unions, have all posted statements in solidarity with the striking workers in Hong Kong.

At this critical moment, we do not know whether the Chief Executive C.Y. Leung will step down, or whether there will be another round of political reform consultation. What we do know is that Hong Kong’s workers are standing to protest against their own government which, for too long, has ignored the voices of dissent. The cause of the labour movement in Hong Kong wishes for a long overdue social justice.

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