Hong Kong’s Low-Wages Face Organizational Obstacles After Crackdown | Business and Economy

Hong Kong, China – When Foodpanda Hong Kong announced plans to cut per order payments by an additional HK $ 2 ($ 0.25) earlier this month, Ahmad and hundreds of other runners went on strike.

“It was the boiling point,” said Ahmad, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisal. “Everyone was very angry. They didn’t want to work for such a low salary.

The Pakistani joined the food delivery platform at the height of the pandemic in 2020 when his trading company closed with the city’s borders.

Barely taking time off each week, he could earn up to 30,000 Hong Kong dollars ($ 3,850) a month to support his family of four. However, as restaurants reopened and demand for food delivery plummeted, the company slashed couriers’ incomes by gradually reducing their pay per order.

In October, it was difficult for Ahmad to earn even 25,000 Hong Kong dollars ($ 3,209) a month, a fifth of which was spent on maintaining his motorcycle.

Shortly after Foodpanda announced the pay cut, several hundred fleet members flocked to a Telegram group first set up by couriers to discuss technical issues in the company’s application.

“People came like flies,” Ahmad recalled, fueled by growing grievances over wages, arbitrary account suspension and unreasonable penalties, among other issues.

“We are humans, not dogs,” read the signs attached to their motorcycles and bicycles during the November 13-14 strike, which succeeded in forcing Foodpanda to the negotiating table, where its leaders on Thursday accepted more generous compensation.

The plight of concert workers is not unique to Hong Kong, but those in the world’s financial center are now walking a particularly fine line.

In one of the most unequal cities in the world, workers face not only their businesses under laws that noticeably favor employers over employees, but also an increasingly intolerant government. any form of organization and dissent.

The pro-democracy Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions voted to dissolve it last month, citing political pressure following the passing of a sweeping national security law [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Last month, the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU), the city’s largest independent trade union coalition, announced its decision to disband, joining a long list of civil society organizations that have bowed under pressure from a Radical national security law imposed by Beijing following pro-democracy protests in 2019.

The founder of CTU and other union leaders are behind bars for their role in protests or alleged violations of the National Security Act, which has virtually wiped out political opposition and silenced pro organizations and media. -democracy in the former British colony. Beijing and the Hong Kong government hailed the security law for restoring peace and stability to the city after months of often violent protests.

Without the umbrella group, unions are left as “a snail without its shell,” as one former member put it.

The change in political atmosphere was also felt among the workers organizing in the field.

As representatives of Foodpanda couriers negotiated with the company on Wednesday, dozens of runners gathering outside were warned by police against participating in an unauthorized rally and threatened with fines for breaking the rules. social distancing rules.

The dissolution of the CTU was inevitable after a relatively free political system that guaranteed plurality in the decades following the city’s 1997 transfer to Chinese sovereignty vanished overnight, Executive Member Denny To said. speaking from the former coordination group office in bustling Mong Kok.

“The way forward is something we have to find out for ourselves,” To said. “The work of a union is long and slow. Its sustainability after decentralization remains a question.

Hong Kong has one of the most severe wealth inequalities on the planet [File: Chan Long Hei]

In 2017, To, who is also the head of the Union of Cleaning Industry Services Workers, led cleaners in a public housing estate in a 10-day strike that resulted in the reinstatement of severance pay. and higher wages – a rare victory for grassroots workers. .

His team worked tirelessly behind the scenes, raising funds for workers during their strike, garnering support from residents and liaising with the media.

Their triumph sparked a wave of union action in public housing estates and prompted the Hong Kong government to amend the law in 2019. A new clause requires contractors to pay their employees a termination bonus.

Yet as the cleaners’ contract expired last month, they complained that their employer had used an old trick: to intimidate workers into quitting and thus forfeiting their severance pay. Some cleaners said they were tricked into signing additional contracts that denied them the right to tip, while a handful said they were threatened with pay cuts and other penalties.

In the current political environment, it is hard to imagine a repeat of To’s campaign on behalf of the cleaners. The CTU is no longer there to provide the same support, while their allies in the public service have been purged from the political system. Yeung Yuk, a district councilor who allied with the cleaners, was among more than 200 opposition councilors who resigned under pressure in July.

“The grassroots workers may not have a keen sense of politics, but they are not ignorant,” To said. “They realize that those on their side are disintegrating and that they need a lot of confidence to express themselves. “

To said he feared it would become difficult to amplify the voice of workers in Hong Kong, where advocates say labor protections are already lax and weakly enforced.

“Labor protections have always been weak in Hong Kong. Without our voice, the government can only actively improve its policies when pigs fly, ”he said.

Ho Hung Hing, head of the General Union of Catering and Hotel Employees, a former CTU affiliate, said the government had done little to uphold standards in the economy. odd jobs.

“Even without the CTU, our network will not disappear and we will continue to organize,” Ho said, “but without any representative in the parliamentary system, our advocacy can never reach the Legislative Council. “

Silver lining

There is a silver lining, however, as the case of Foodpanda couriers shows. Although the company has not increased its fee per order, citing its global strategy, it has agreed to suspend the rate cut until June of next year, pay peak-hour bonuses and offer other forms of compensation.

Speaking to the media after the deal, Pedros Dias, Foodpanda’s Hong Kong operations manager, attributed the dispute to “poor communication” with the fleet, though many riders complained of being under-resourced. to be heard.

Ho, who represented the Foodpanda runners during the negotiations, said the workers’ united stance was key to their success, making a powerful statement that could not be ignored.

Although many progressive unions formed during the 2019 protests have since dissolved under political repression, Ho credits the social movement with the credit for inspiring a new political awakening and encouraging civic participation.

“A city-wide strike may still be out of reach, but people have realized that by going on strike, they are participating in industrial action that could influence the city’s politics and economy. “Ho said.

“Workers have come to understand that they have to speak up when they see something wrong. The ship that holds unions together may be gone, but people are still alive and doing what they can in each of their own industries. “

As for Ahmad, he is back on his motorbike. He was not entirely satisfied with the outcome of the strike and admitted that he had to make compromises. But now he’s delivering food knowing the couriers can leverage their collective power to demand change.

“It’s for our home, our family and our survival in Hong Kong,” he said.

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