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Freelancers discover the flipside of the gig economy’s promise of flexibility and start to unionise

By Katie Cheng & Nancy Mak

When Kenny Lai Kar-hay joined the voice-acting industry 24 years ago, he heard that the industry was once considered an ideal job – stable, secure and well-paid. That started to change in the 1990s when the advent of cable television channels and pay TV created a greater demand for voice artists. The new stations did not want to set up their own dubbing teams and contracted the work out to outside studios who hired freelancers. Apart from the lack of job security and benefits, the casualisation of voice-acting work has led to industry-wide changes. In particular, Lai says, studios tend to drag their feet on payment, waiting to be paid by their clients before paying the voice actors for their work.

This state of affairs is not unique to voice actors. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has written of how increasingly the “standard employment relationship” of full-time work is being complemented by “non-standard” forms of work such as part-time employment, fixed-term contracts, temporary work, homeworking, self-employment and casual work. One recent survey of 31 countries including China, showed that 85 per cent of executives plan to increase their organisation’s use of independent freelance workers over the next year.

For some young people engaged in creative types of work such as media production and graphic design as well as in IT, these new forms of employment may seem more attractive, flexible and give them greater control than conventional full-time work. But in reality those engaged in the so-called “gig” economy also suffer from exploitation, as do others who work in casualised labour. Meanwhile, the nature of the way they work means they are less likely to be part of an organised labour movement that can fight for their rights.

Thomas Lau, who recently graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, surprised his friends recently when he showed them his recent purchase of a high-end professional digital single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. Unsuccessful in his applications for jobs, Lau has been working on various freelance photography jobs and has now made enough money to buy this tool of the trade.

Thomas Lau takes a break from his work as a freelance photographer.

But he is also aware of the downsides of freelancing. “There was one outdoor photo-taking job. My client told me the shooting was cancelled due to bad weather. Then the guy contacted me one day, saying that the shooting would take place on that day. That was three weeks later already,” Lau says.

Lau says he does not really have a schedule and does not know when he will next get paid. Not only that, but some clients do not even recognise photography as a skill; one offered to pay him just HK$300 for a job. “It was just HK$300, not to mention the travel expenses,” he recalls.

Another flipside of the flexibility from freelancing is that it is hard to switch off from work altogether, as freelancers have to constantly network, look for the next job or chase up payments. Nor do they get paid for holidays or when they are sick.

It is not just freelancers who do not get to switch off. Kenchi Wong, an assistant professor at the Department of Counselling and Psychology at the Hong Kong Shue Yan University says advanced communications and technology may have eliminated the need for a fixed workspace and facilitated the creation of new modes of work, but they also blur the boundary between work and non-work. Employees are expected to respond and work any time, anywhere, resulting in longer working hours and higher stress levels.

Farzana Aslam, a lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, says that the “right to disconnect” should be regulated. She believes that reforming the law would help relieve work-life conflict. However, freelancers or contract workers do not satisfy the criteria to be considered employees under common law, so they cannot avail themselves of the protections afforded by the Employment Ordinance which gives the basic layer of minimum protections.

Aslam says the government is too cautious. “They are very concerned about the financial impact on employers. That’s a legitimate concern,” says Aslam. “But to my mind, it’s not really balanced enough in favour of employees and workers and what rights they should be seeking to protect.”

While some choose to work on a freelance basis, others are forced to do so by companies who manipulate ordinance loopholes to avoid providing benefits. Mung Siu-tat, chief executive of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, says the trend towards casualisation in Hong Kong began with the Asian financial crisis in 1997, when companies cut costs by using outsourced security guards and cleaners.

The HKCTU’s Mung Siu-tat

This mode of employment did not change even after the economy recovered. Some workers, such as fitness coaches, salespeople and construction workers, are often self-employed on paper but are actually working full-time for their employers. “The employers are shifting the business risk to the workers,” says Mung. “Workers used to be paid as long as they have worked, but now if companies suffer a loss, the workers have to bear it.”

Mung contrasts the attitude of Hong Kong’s Labour Department with the European Union, which promotes “flexsecurity”, a notion that work can be flexible and secure at the same time. A 2013 report by the European Union showed countries with greater work flexibility and security had higher levels of productivity and GDP per capita. “Hong Kong’s Labour Ordinance is certainly outdated,” says Mung. “The situation of freelancers is basically ignored.”

In the face of new pressures created by the changing nature of work, some employees, including contract workers and freelancers, are organising. It is much harder to unite workers when the workforce consists of freelancers and casual labour, who often do not work in the same space at the same time, but workers in some fields have managed to form new unions in recent years.

Kenny Lai Kar-hay’s Labour Union of Dubbing of Hong Kong, which was formed in 2015 and now has 68 members, is one of them. The Social and Political Organisation Workers’
Union, a new labour union established in 2016, is another. Vincent Lam is the chairman of the union which serves Legco and district councillors’ assistants and workers across different non-establishment advocacy parties and groups. Lam says assistants are expected to always be on call. “Basically, you have to reply to WhatsApp messages instantly,” he says. “Sometimes constituents look for you and sometimes your boss looks for you. So, even if you’ve left the office, you’ll still have to work.”

Lam says he and his peers also face underpayment and arrears in salary. But nobody ever dares speak out against their bosses as they will be accused of disloyalty and trying to score points to pave the way for their own political aspirations. Lam says the union was set up to provide a formal platform for people to make complaints about their working conditions without being labelled as traitors for speaking out. It currently has 40 to 50 members.

Another recently formed union is the Hong Kong Teaching and Research Support Staff Union, which was established in 2016. The trend of casualisation of employment has increased in higher education in recent years, with many long-term jobs being replaced by short-term, contract-based jobs. Teaching staff often have to worry about their jobs, including their medical benefits, every one or two years. Universities began to adopt these employment practices after the pay structure was decoupled from that of the civil service in 2003 – leading to cuts in pay and benefits.

Glen Ng Ka-lun, an executive committee member of the union, says teaching and research assistants (TAs and RAs) have suffered the most, along with other lower-rank employees. “Our jobs are not secure, your contract will end when the funding of a [research] project is over and they have no money to pay you. Then you have to find another job,” says Ng.

Glen Ng Ka-lun and his fellow union members promote their union during the Labour Day march.

The union has heard from TAs and RAs who say that contract-based, short-term employment excludes them from most benefits and regular promotion procedures. “I’ve heard that in some cases, they don’t even have a proper working space. And that they’re barred from using some departmental facilities, some of which are very basic, because they’re not regarded as regular staff,” says Ng.

Ng added university management can manipulate the terms of their employment so that it is difficult to get pay rises and promotions from one contract to the next. He says the mechanism for pay rises, promotion and benefits are not standard and lack transparency, resulting in unfair treatment.

Therefore, the field has a high turnover rate. The union once had about 25 members but that figure has now dropped to around 10. This high fluidity makes it hard for TAs and RAs to unite and fight for better terms. Their work is also quite independent, creating very individual labour disputes across different departments and institutions.

The union has tried to bring people together and raise their collective consciousness. They take part in mass labour rights events, such as the May 1 Labour Day rally. They are also striving for the right to vote in the Higher Education Subsector functional constituency elections and are working with other concern groups on academic freedom.

However, Ng thinks the union’s future is grim. “Our union has about 10 members but the required minimum number of executives is five,” says Ng. “The union has to disband if our people drop below five.”

Mung of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions says contract workers change jobs frequently and do not feel a sense of belonging to their jobs and peers, so they are disinterested in joining labour movements. He says the number of members in traditional workers unions are also decreasing because of casualisation. “When the number of members drops, the bargaining power of the union will decline,” he says.

The ability of unions to take any kind of industrial action is severely limited in Hong Kong because of the lack of collective bargaining rights. However, Aslam thinks setting up new labour unions is “a brilliant idea”.

“If you get together collectively, you can start to create change. Obviously, ideally, you’d have a legal system that supported and gave greater recognition to that,” she says. For voice actor Kenny Lai Kar-hai, collective action has made a difference, however small.

“I think that to some degree things have improved a little since the union was formed. For instance we get paid sooner. Some studios are even paying every month. That’s almost like being a regular employee getting paid at the end of a month’s work,” he says.

Edited by Howard Yang