A notable feature so far of the eight-month political protest in Hong Kong has been the absence of industrial action. However, the five day strike by health workers at the start of February promises to dramatically change that perception.
The strike was not about wages or job cuts. At first glance it appeared to be xenophobic, as its main demand was shutting Hong Kong’s borders with China to keep out carriers of the new coronavirus from the mainland.
Strikers however saw themselves as trying to protect their working conditions and to save Hong Kong and its under-resourced health service from being overwhelmed by a city-wide virus outbreak.
Strikers’ anger was directed against an incompetent and insensitive government that is incapable of protecting its citizens’ health and well-being. The chronic and persistent shortage of nurses and doctors in public hospitals has gone on for years, exposing exhausted health workers now to serious hazards, amidst fears that there are insufficient masks and other medical supplies to cope with the rising numbers infected by the new coronavirus, while there is no end to potential carriers entering the city from the mainland.
The Health Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) registered as a new trade union in December 2019. By 26 January, it had threatened to strike for five days, starting 3 February, if the Health Authority dids not respond to its demands to prevent the new virus from Wuhan from spreading to the city.
The union pressed the government to stop any visitors from Wuhan, establish more isolation wards, suspend non-emergency services, follow up escape cases of infected patients, and supply sufficient facilities for medical staff to do their jobs. It threatened to escalate the strike if there was no response from the HA after five days.
By the eve of the threatened strike, the Philippines had its first death from the virus and had just banned all travellers from China and Hong Kong, and many of China’s neighbours, including Vietnam and Kazakhstan, had imposed bans on travellers from China. HAEA had balloted members in non-essential services and raised their demands on the government to totally close land, sea and air links with the whole of China.
On 3 February, over 2000 health workers went on strike. The HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region) Government announced the closure of most border crossing points with China, except for the Macau Bridge, the Shenzhen Bay crossing, and the airport.
Health workers responded by striking in greater numbers the next day, over 7000 according to HAEA. The Government then announced that all travellers from China into Hong Kong would be subject to a 14 day quarantine, effective from midnight on Saturday 8 Feb. The strike continued.
The strike leaders demanded open talks with both the Health Authority and the Government, and when they were turned down, thousands went to occupy the Health Authority’s administration building on Thursday and Friday.
In the face of management intransigence, and signs of patients’ distress in frontline services, a ballot to further escalate the industrial action into the second week was held on Friday. The 3000 odd who voted to continue were outnumbered by over 4000 voting against, and the strike ended.
The union’s other key demands, about increasing medical supplies to frontline hospitals and no victimisation of strikers, were not answered, and the Government claimed that the 14 day quarantine announcement had deterred most people from travelling to Hong Kong from China.
It was an untidy end to the action, and the relatively inexperienced union leadership may have overestimated members’ appetite for escalating the action. Nevertheless the morale of union members and the public’s support for the strikers remained very solid.
The new union’s membership is around 18,000, just under a quarter of all health workers. Its membership has grown throughout the past month and is likely to continue growing. Unionisation has been an accelerating trend in the latter months of 2019 as the protest movement continued to radicalise the city’s population.
“Resist Tyranny, Join a Union” became a regular chant on some marches, especially the one on New Year’s Day 2020.
There were 135 applications to form unions in the second half of 2019, compared to only 10 in the same period in 2018. At least 23 were recognised and registered.
The growing links between the protest movement and newly formed trade unions is set to continue and prove to be a thorn in the side of the Government.
This trend is part of the protest movement’s strategy of gaining more leverage for future elections to both the Legislative Council, where there are five functional constituency places to represent trade unions, as well as for places on the 1200-strong electoral college that will elect the next Chief Executive next year. This amounts to a serious challenge to the current constitutional means by which Beijing keeps control of Hong Kong.
The HK Federation of Trade Unions, a pro-Beijing organisation, was active in protests against the British colonial rule in HK in 1967, while the Cultural revolution was raging in China. Today the HKFTU is part of the support mechanism for the HKSAR Government, holding several Legco seats.
Just as most people would say that Hong Kong will never return to “normal” after the protest movement of 2019, so we can foresee that trade union membership and political strikes are likely to be rising from the ashes of 1967.
But this time with very different politics.