Hoi Lai housing estate cleaners’ ten-day strike achieves important partial victory over unscrupulous bosses
GW Jones, Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong)
Once again, using the classic neoliberal tactic of offloading government responsibilities onto complaisant and exploitative private service providers, the most vulnerable of Hong Kong’s working poor, public housing estate cleaners, find themselves under attack.
They have gone on a rare strike over payments due to them by a government contractor that changed its corporate identity overnight for the very purpose to avoid paying the meagre severance pay required under Hong Kong law.
The strike by around 20 cleaning workers from Hoi Lai Estate, a West Kowloon public housing estate, began on 27 December. These workers, formerly employed by the Man Shun Hong Kong and Kowloon Cleaning Company, explained that they were denied severance payments after being forced to sign “voluntary” resignation agreements in October, when the company’s contract at the Hoi Lai Estate ended.
They said that, if they refused to resign, they would be assigned to work in other areas around the city, incurring higher transport fees every day. The workers were then re-employed by a new cleaning contractor – Hong Kong Commercial Cleaning – which declined to honour the long service payments for their tenures with Man Shun. In this way, Commercial bosses would save huge sums by cheating workers out of their legal entitlements. To add insult to injury, Commercial offered the workers a pay increase of HK$11 per month!
Media reports suggest that the old and new firms are actually the same. iCable reported that Man Shun and Commercial Cleaning share the same office, and a Commercial Cleaning staffer tried to cover a sign reading ‘Man Shun’ with a piece of cloth when reporters paid a visit.
The Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) estimate that Man Shun owe as much as HK$1 million in total severance payments, given that its contract at Hoi Lai Estate began in 2008.
One worker told Hong Kong Free Press that she had been working for Man Shun for nine years, and that her most recent salary totalled around HK$8,600 per month (US$1,100). She said she did not know how much in severance pay she was owed: “I can’t do the maths, and they never told me – I felt like I’ve been tricked.”
Hong Kong’s fanatically pro-business government is considering to change the rules for the Mandatory Providence Fund (MPF), abolishing the ‘offset’ mechanism that has long been exploited by bosses to syphon money out of workers’ pension accounts in order to offset legally stipulated severance compensation. The cleaners’ strike may just be the tip of the iceberg with more and more companies turning to similar devious schemes to get around the loss of the ‘offset’ loophole.
Supporters of the striking workers condemned the actions of the government’s Housing Department, which is responsible for managing public housing estates and therefore also for resolving the issues involved – given that it pays the contractors – but has hidden behind its outsourcing arrangements.
This is the logic of outsourcing, which is a gigantic scam against the working class, giving politicians and government bureaucrats a pretext to escape from their responsibilities. The Hong Kong government exists to bolster the fortunes of the super-rich property developers, with land sale and usage policies that favour them as opposed the 99 percent of Hong Kong residents who face some of the highest rental prices in the world.
To pay for huge white elephant projects that fill the tycoons’ coffers, the government cuts spending on social services for the masses and employs private companies like Man Shun/Commercial Cleaning as cut-outs to further exploit the lowest paid workers.
Victory of sorts
On 5 January, a settlement was reached and the ten-day strike was called off. The employers agreed to severance pay of HK$1,200 for every year worked. This is a big increase on their earlier offer of just HK$200 per working year. However, it is still a smaller amount than stipulated by law. For example, a worker who has worked nine years should get HK$14,000 (taking into account the impact of the MPF ‘offset’) but under this agreement they will get only HK$10,800, or 70 percent. The company agreed to an underwhelming wage increase of HK$172 to HK$8,800 per month.
This represents an important partial, rather than complete, victory for the striking workers. On the plus side, the strike has had a very big impact and won significant support from other workers and the wider population. There is widespread anger in society at the injustices heaped upon workers outsourced to sweatshop private employers. This was shown on the 1 January demonstration against authoritarianism, with 10,000 participants, which gave the striking cleaners the honour of leading the march.
This strike could signal the start of a new trend of workers’ struggles in privatised and outsourced sectors over low wages and worsening conditions. But the best way to prepare and strengthen the hand of the working class is to continue where the cleaners’ strike ended; to organise and build active and democratic trade union branches, making sure workers themselves are in the driving seat of future struggles.