Thousands March in Hong Kong Amid Growing Anger Over Pay, Long Hours

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Photo courtesy of Lin Guoli

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong and Macau on International Workers' Day on Tuesday to campaign for better pay and benefits for their lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers.

Thousands flocked to a march organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) to government headquarters, while hundreds of workers from the pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) accused the government of colluding with businesses, and failing to protect employees.

Both groups were protesting the lack of standard working hours and lack of work-life balance, while pro-democracy groups called for collective bargaining and a universal pension scheme.

FTU vice-chairman Lee Che-kin called for an end to the practice of deducting severance and long-service payments from workers' pension funds.

A protester and bus driver surnamed Pang said he wants to see a minimum wage and a limit to the number of hours he can be expected to work.

A bitter row has erupted between bus operators Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB) and the drivers’ union over allegations of inadequate driver training, since 19 people died in a bus crash in February.

"We are fighting for a minimum wage and for shorter working hours, with more rest time to spend with our families," Pang said. "It's not good for our health, and there's no time to go hiking or swimming or anything. All we do is get home and sleep, until the next shift."

"It's gotten to the point where we don't even pass our health checks; our shifts should be limited to 11 hours a day, not 13 hours a day," he said.

Meanwhile, a construction worker surnamed Leung accused developers of importing cheaper labor from outside Hong Kong, forcing local workers out of a job.

"A lot of people just spend their lives asleep at home, especially the skilled workers, because it's been made so there isn't enough work for them," Leung said. "There are a lot of people in this industry who had too many projects to choose from just a couple of years ago ... because they've now trained a lot of [migrant workers] to do those jobs now."

A protester surnamed Cheng called for guaranteed rest days for the whole working population.

"The way things are going right now, one generation has to meet the costs of two generations," he said. "There should be a basic guaranteed pension for elderly people from all social classes."

Wealth gap

CTU chairwoman Carol Ng said the government has yet to live up to its promises to do more for a growing rich-poor divide in Hong Kong.

Last year, outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying vowed to strengthen social security, expand medical subsidies for the elderly, and to abolish a rule allowing severance packages to be funded from employers' former contributions to employee pensions.

But Ng said little has changed since his successor Carrie Lam took over.

"They talk, but they don't act," Ng said. "They frequently capitulate to protest from the commercial sector."

She said the government had promised to phase out the practice over the course of a decade, but had given scant thought to the elderly working class who would be on the wrong side of the cut-off point.

"Who is going to subsidize them? They are only interested in subsidizing the employer; everything favors the employer, while Hong Kong's workers have to work till they drop," she said. "That is what workers are facing in the year 2018."

Pro-Beijing unionist Stanley Ng agreed.

"The deduction of severance packages from the Mandatory Provident Fund needs to stop as soon as possible," Ng said. "We see that the government is sincere about doing this, and we note that the commercial sector keeps moving the goalposts, probably to try to drag the process out."

"But there is a social consensus here, and I hope that employers won't go against society, and against protection for the retirement benefits of ordinary workers," he said.


Across the Pearl River Delta in Macau, hundreds of gaming sector employees took to the streets to demand better working conditions, albeit in a much smaller demonstration than in previous years in the former Portuguese enclave.

The protesters submitted a petition letter to government officials calling for benefits on a par with the civil service, including the same housing allowances and pensions.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Au Kam San told RFA that the sector, which accounts for a large slice of economic activity in the city, has seen downward pressure on wages in the past 10 years, with a huge pool of potential applicants, however.

"There is no difficulty in recruiting employees. Many people apply for these jobs, so there is no need to make big adjustments to salaries," Au said. "The general public is generally ... able to survive through social welfare, so while people here may not like government policies, their lives aren't greatly affected by them."

"People here tend to be pretty conservative," he said. "If they aren't struggling to get by, then they will be less motivated to participate in social movements."

But labor activist and former lawmaker Ron Lam said people are also less likely to attend demonstrations if they see little chance that the status quo will change as a result.

"The sense of powerlessness in society may be relatively high right now," Lam said. "In 2008, the  community ... asked the government to deal with the issue of flood prevention, but 10 years later, nothing has actually happened."

Lam said many people had suffered from flood and storm damage during Typhoon Tiange last August.

"People feel that more senior officials need to be held accountable ... maybe people's sense of powerlessness stems from this," he said.

Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.





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