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Instead, the Labour Department encourages voluntary negotiations between workers and their employers. It says the conciliation services it provides have been working well as evidenced by Hong Kong’s harmonious labour relations and low level of strike activity.

The chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party, Felix Chung Kwok-pan agrees. He describes the relationship between employees and employers in Hong Kong as close and friendly. Chung thinks most employers would rather hold on to their employees unless they deem their demands to be too high. “The businessmen sit down and talk to them, and they can solve the problem without the collective bargaining law. So why do we need the law?” he says.

Chung, who represents the textiles and garment functional constituency in LegCo, says more than 90 per cent of businesses in Hong Kong are small and medium enterprises (SME), which means they have fewer than 50 staff if they are in the service industry and 100 employees for those in industry. As the companies are small, Chung says it is easy for workers to enter direct dialogue with employers whenever disputes arise.

“If there is anything they are unhappy with, just go in and knock on the door and tell the boss directly,” Chung says.

Chung insists that when it comes to labour relations, one size does not fill all and that a collective bargaining law would get in the way of company operations. “You cannot apply one theory to everybody,” he says

Photo courtesy of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers

However, labour sector legislator Tang Ka-piu says the unions are open to allowing for certain exclusions under any potential collective bargaining law. He explains that if a company is too small for effective implementation of the law, there can be some exemptions. The main thing, according to Tang, is that there needs to be general support for a collective bargaining law in society at large. “This may be difficult, but it is possible to achieve it step by step.”

Apart from ensuring that workers have collective bargaining rights to negotiate with individual employers, Tang also urges legislation to implement collective bargaining across specific industries. He says some industries with high rates of turnover, like the construction and tourism industries, practise wage-fixing which means the trade unions will negotiate wages with employers in the industry and they have to pay the fixed and agreed wages when hiring workers. This practice is becoming common among high mobility industries and is an important safeguard for workers.

However, Tang is worried that wage-fixing may violate the Competition Law which will be implemented this year, as the ordinance stipulates price-fixing as anti-competition behaviour. “If it is going to cause legal disputes, our organisation [will] strongly ask the government to legalise collective bargaining because if there is no law to ensure collective bargaining, other laws may override any agreements.” Tang says.

While the enactment of a collective bargaining law can ensure employers are duty bound to enter into the process of bargaining with employees, it cannot guarantee a mutually acceptable agreement. Whether workers can secure a satisfactory agreement depends on the strength and negotiating power of their unions.

Wong Hung, associate director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, thinks this, rather than the lack of collective bargaining rights, is the biggest problem for Hong Kong’s trade unions. He says most trade unions in Hong Kong have weak organisational power. There is little genuine solidarity and many workers join the unions for the welfare benefits and shopping discounts they offer. The unions may have large memberships but most members show little or no concern about labour rights and union affairs – a phenomenon that has persisted for more than a decade.