Wong notes that another problem is that the unions’ focus on political discussions may be to the detriment of their work on protecting labour rights, which may no longer be the priority in union affairs. “They go to the political side, they become a party, and they will join the election,” he says.
The two major trade unions in Hong Kong are the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU) and the pan-democratic Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), of which the Union of Dock Workers is a member association. Apart from working on labour issues, the leaders of the unions are also legislators who actively participate into political discussions.
Given this scenario, Wong thinks it is more important and pragmatic to focus on discussing how to strengthen the power of trade unions rather than to fight for a collective bargaining law.
“If you just have a law, but if you can’t change the power base of a union, then the union can’t get real collective bargaining,” he says. “They write down the right but you never enjoy it.”
Even without a law on collective bargaining, it is possible for employers and employees to sign a collective bargaining agreement themselves. Wong notes the successful examples of the agreements reached between the unions and Cathay Pacific and Dragonair. Swire Beverages (HK) Employees General Union also reached an agreement with Swire Beverages last October. In all of these cases, the unions were strong.
Don Chan Hing-lung, president of the Swire employees union, says reaching an agreement with the company was not an easy process. It took a whole year for the company to sign the agreement after workers went on strike in 2013. “Why did we have to argue over the agreement for so long? It is because the company pays excessive attention to every word. If we had the [collective bargaining] law, the company would take the initiative to negotiate with us. And it wouldn’t take us so long and be so hard to get the agreement.”
Although the workers got an agreement, Chan believes there is a pressing need for a collective bargaining law. He says that throughout the negotiation process, the employer was in a dominant position and even now, the company can terminate the agreement by giving three months’ notice. “The company always says this agreement is not bound by any legal framework,” he says.
But the situation is even worse in other companies. Chan says some unions are greatly suppressed by the company. “They even don’t have a notice board. This is a basic labour right which allows the union to promote [the union affairs] to its members…But they still accept this unfair treatment. ” For Chan, collective bargaining would act as a catalyst to gain recognition for unions and encourage workers to be concerned about their rights.
Rather than cause tension in the relationship between organised labour and employers, Chan says a recognised collective bargaining mechanism would actually enhance the relationship between labour and capital.
“Before signing the agreement, the relationship between the trade union and company is like that of a boyfriend and girlfriend. Negotiations could be called off anytime. But after signing the agreement, we at least have some insurance, like receiving maintenance,” says Chan.
Edited by Tracy Cheung