Crippling labor strikes have long been an element of Western society, with the United States, the U.K. and other countries regularly suffering strikes. Now, workers in booming Asia are beginning to demand a larger slice of the economic pie as labor protests spread.
The most recent strike, involving over 500 dock workers, is threatening to shut down Hong Kong’s port, the third busiest port in the world.
Strikers are now camping outside of the Hong Kong’s Kwai Tsing Container Terminal, demanding that operator Hong Kong International Terminals (HIT) increase pay and improve working conditions. So far, there is no collective bargaining agreement between HIT and any union, another demand in the strikes.
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The strike is being led by Chan Chiu-wai, a leader of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. So far the HIT has refused to negotiate and strike leaders have called the strike indefinite, claiming they are willing to wait it out until they get their demands, which includes a 15 percent raise in pay and collective bargaining rights.
The strike could even set off larger tensions with student unions and pro-Democracy groups supporting the strike. Currently, Hong Kong is not a true democracy, nor is it a part of mainland China’s communist rule. Under the so-called “one country, two systems” policy Hong Kong maintains semi-autonomy from the mainland Chinese government.
Under Hong Kong’s current economic system only low level officials are directly elected. The Chief Executive (basically the “mayor/president”) is instead elected by a 1200 member committee, mostly made up of local business leaders and other elites. Theoretically, Hong Kong is required by its constitution to move towards direct democratic elections, though no time frames have been stipulated.
The most important question to ask is whether this development is simply a minor “blip” on the radar, or a sign of things to come.
Already, some of China’s largest manufacturing companies have had to shut down facilities due to protests and riots. As China grows richer people are demanding better wages, working conditions, and increased rights.
Technically, all of China’s unions are state sponsored and under the control of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, but in practice that union group has proven ineffective at protecting worker’s rights.
Indeed many accuse the union of actually working for businesses by keeping workers in line. Beyond the national union, Chinese citizens enjoy few rights in regard to freedom of association and ability to form independent unions.
Still, the spread of social media and increasing education levels of the workforce are encouraging people to be more blunt in their demands and calls for change. Mounting pressures are leading to reform. For one the All-China Federation of Trade Unions has been demonstratively more responsive to worker demands, suggesting that the organization could finally begin to fullfill its objectives of protecting and representing workers.
Two, companies have also been forced to make concessions. Foxconn Technology Co., Ltd. (TPE:2354), for example, recently announced that it would raise wages in its manufacturing plants by 25 percent, a major concession by any measure.
Whether or not labor movements will gain momentum or sputter out remains to be seen. For the most part, leaders in Hong Kong and China have dealt with labor movements with a heavy hand, often willing to suppress workers in order to maintain economic stability. Quite simply, a region that has long relied on its cheap labor to fuel economic growth many not be able to raise wages and working conditions to be in line with worker’s demands.