CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 20 July 2019

Print Version    Email to Friend
Labour rights should be recognised

In 1886, workers in the United States of America staged a nationwide strike to demand the adoption of an eight-hour workday. Although the strike failed to achieve an immediate outcome, it did arouse awareness the world over on labour rights.

During the International Workers’ Congresses of Paris in 1889, May 1 was formally recognised as International Workers’ Day (May Day). This symbolises the unity of workers and reminds us that they are the driving force behind social and economic development, which should be recognised.

Over a century has passed. In prosperous and glamorous Hong Kong, the contribution of workers has not been fully recognised nor labour rights protected. The dock workers’ strike has highlighted shortcomings in the labour contract system, with its lack of collective bargaining.

Hong Kong International Terminals Ltd. outsources the majority of its labour to cut down on fringe benefits, so discounted contracting is inevitable.

With recent inflation, real wages have dwindled and purchasing power is now lower than the 1990s. However, by claiming not to be the employer of the dock workers, the terminal company has shunned responsibility for wages and benefits, by refusing to negotiate directly with the workers.

Sub-contractors negotiate labour, but labour actually works for the port operator. The working environment is subject to the restrictions of the port operator. The international community has increasingly emphasised the social responsibilities of enterprises and urged them to find a reasonable balance between profit and labour remuneration.

The strike has also revealed the inadequacy of collective bargaining rights in Hong Kong.

Even though the unions represent many dock workers, Hong Kong International Terminals and the sub-contractors still did not recognise the status of unions and refused to negotiate with them.

In most of Europe and the United States of America, workers’ wages and conditions are negotiated with employers through collective bargaining to prevent employers from suppressing wages and benefits by negotiating with individuals only. Employers cannot avoid negotiations and agreements settled between parties are deemed legally binding.

As labour unions in Hong Kong do not have the right to collective bargaining, employees cannot negotiate on an equal footing. On top of this, attendance at the conciliation meetings arranged by the Labour Department is voluntary.

The International Labour Organisation formally issued the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (No. 87) in 1948 and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (No. 98) in 1949, demanding that the international community respect and safeguard these two basic labour rights.

Church social teaching addresses these issues (Human Work in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church Ch. 6). It affirms that companies should satisfy basic human needs while pursuing profits. It recognises the right to strike and, while new forms of production bring about radical change in the business environment, it says problems of unjust treatment, poor pay and uncertain work should be addressed.

This is a human-oriented approach. The Church affirms that work is for man and not man for work. This is the challenge posed by the gospel to contemporary society.

It is within the bounds of reason for Hong Kong to keep up with the international community by introducing a collective bargaining law to enable both employers and employees to build a long-lasting communication mechanism built on equality. SE