「工會須要轉型。」 – 梁祖彬教授
職工盟與工聯會 – 二虎競食
在本年四月，政府正式就標準工時展開討論。各工會今後向政策施加的渾身解數相信不會令人乏味。作為標準工時委員會的一員，梁指出了討論中的兩個重要議題。第一個是超時工作的賠償問題。工會提議將超時工作的薪金提升百分之五十，故梁認為「標準工時」不過是一個幌子 – 事實上這是一個就超時工作及假期工作進行賠償的議題。
September 11, 2013
Labour Times: The Changing Face of Work in Hong Kong
Journalist Calvin Lam and Editor in Chief Andrew Work interviewed Professor Joseph Leung (梁祖彬教授) about the changing face of labour in Hong Kong. He is a respected social scientist in Hong Kong who also sits on the Standard Working Hours Committee. With minimum wage rises, strikes, standard working hours and demographic changes in the works, what does the future of Hong Kong hold?
Unrest related to labour and welfare in recent years, including the dockers’ strike which lasted for months feel like the beginning of the end of Hong Kong’s free labour era. Fundamental changes to Hong Kong’s labour market and welfare system are afoot. How can we anticipate and shape what is to come?
In an interview with Professor Joseph Leung Cho-bun from Hong Kong University, he identified a mix of factors influencing the future and driving recent unrest.
To begin with, a more democratic Hong Kong has encouraged people to voice their opinions more easily. Labour issues are therefore more prone to be politicized.
A strong economy has resulted in people feeling more prosperous, leading to a desire to share the wealth with the less fortunate. The public have seen the government as even more prosperous than they are. While the public makes more, they also struggle with inflation. The government, on the other hand, seems to move from strength to strength with surpluses with no equal worldwide. Accordingly, their voices rise with demands for the apparently rich government to alleviate inequality.
These factors combine to create more demands that the government struggles to accommodate, weakening their authority. Without a proper arrangement of resources, conflicts easily surface.
Unions in Hong Kong: Outsiders, Insiders and the Pros.
“There were two war fronts going … You have pressure groups outside and people working within the system for the government”
Unions have been at the vanguard of demanding social change. They seek to play a role in changing the status quo. However, not all unions have the same character, approach to change or appeal to various workers.
The Confederation of Trade Union (CTU), led by Mr. Lee Cheuk-yan, seemed to have stolen the spotlight during the Dockers strike and have proven themselves in standing up for the workers. This strident approach would not be out of place in Western style union movements from the 1920’s to 1980’s. They are the classic outsiders, working hard to ‘fight the power!’
They are, in effect, the outsiders in negotiation with the government on labour policies. To get a seat at the table on many government committees, the member unions of the ‘confederation’ need to vote for their meta-representative. The confrontational stance seems to appeal to fewer unions than a more collegiate style preferred by the other big union.
“The CTU and FTU work against each other”
The Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), in contrast, works within government committees and has a voice in making key decisions. Their larger membership seems to appeal to a broader base of larger unions, ensuring their voting base gets them a seat at the table.
There is still another group of unions that has considerable influence. The professional unions are strong in Hong Kong. The Professional Teachers’ Union and the Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff for instance, have prestige and power vis-a-vis their employers.
“Powerful unions are the professional unions……they have more impact than the blue collars”
In the market place of representation, workers choose the groups to represent them. Unions compete fiercely in the public sphere to convince workers they are able to best serve their interests. The FTU and CTU often held dueling press conferences during the dock workers’ strike that seemed aimed solely at showing their contribution and disparaging their rival. Market share is power in union representation.
The Future of Work: Standard Working Hours
It would be interesting to see how unions in Hong Kong will continue to exert their influence with the discussion on standard working hours being brought to the table in April this year. Sitting as part of the Standard Working Hours Committee, Professor Leung mentioned two important issues in the discussion. The first item would be the compensation for working overtime, which the unions proposed the wages to be 1.5 times over the normal wages. He stressed that Standard Working Hours was a misnomer – it was really about extra pay for overtime and working on holidays.
The second item would be consideration of exempt cases, especially in industries which the quality and quantity of products produced are valued more than just being present. He provided examples like sales, professors, artists, and reporters.
In implementing the standard working hour’s legislation, however, Professor Leung said there will be no quick steps. Rather than starting with a standard of 40 hours or lower, perhaps 48 might be the starting point.
When asked about the difficulties in the implementation, he raised several issues. The increase in operational cost for small and medium enterprises might be unbearable. He felt that large corporations would not have difficulty managing their large work forces and administrative capabilities.
Employers might lay off workers and experience work schedule problems as work flow differs across industries. Professor Leung stressed the need to strike a balance among various factors when setting down the standard working hours.
Professor Leung did say he felt that SWH was ‘not something terrible’ and stressed that Hong Kong would likely move cautiously in this area.
Looking into the future
When talking about the future of labour movement in Hong Kong, Professor Leung did not show optimism. Unionization, as he put, was at a low level in Hong Kong. As a financial city focusing on delivering services, it is difficult to unionize people with such high rate of mobility among the workers. Furthermore, the labour laws here do not give unions much power to stretch their arms. “The unions have to transform”, said Professor Leung, who believed unions can be more diverse in what they are doing now.
Unions, like their counterparts in places like Germany and Sweden, can focus on different functions, like training, re-employment and negotiation on wages. He also brought out the example of Canadian unions adopting a collaborative approach to sharpen the competitive advantages of the industry, rather than to confront the employers and result in mutual loss. Now is the time for the unions to transform themselves and with more and more labour laws being enacted, the prospect of unions in Hong Kong depends on their ability to adapt to a changing future.
JUNE 14, 2013