Author: Ivy Hui, A CTU Cleaning Workers’ Union Officer
Translator: Promise Li
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in our series of translations of short letters and statements from members of HKCTU that were posted on their Facebook page upon the news of their disbandment on September 17, 2021 due to increasing repression and harassment from pro-Beijing media and the Hong Kong government. We share these translations here to preserve the history of the city’s progressive and independent unionism and to honor HKCTU’s decades of organizing and struggle to better the lives of Hong Kong workers.
When I asked Chi-wai, the Cleaning Workers’ Union Vice-Chair, to do an interview, he immediately said yes and began delving into his stories with HKCTU and his union, always talking about “unionism” and “centripetal force.” After talking with him for an hour, I realized that I’m not just hearing his story, but the story of the cleaning workers’ union itself.
Law Chi-wai and the Cleaning Workers’ Union
Chi-wai first encountered HKCTU during a labor dispute at Siu Lai Estate. His wife was employed as a cleaning worker at the time, and the cleaning workers’ union was just a small branch affiliated with HKCTU then, without independently registering yet. Once that labor action ended, he joined HKCTU, and became the cleaning workers’ union’s first chair when it finally registered to become an official union in 2003. He remained in that position for 17 years, until stepping down after meeting the current chair, Wong Yau-yun.
“I didn’t know much about unionizing at the time,” Law recalls. The union formed on June 15th, which was also the International Justice Day for Cleaners and Security Guards. That day, Law and some others from the union gathered in front of an optometrist store to stand in solidarity with other cleaning workers’ action. In the years since, the union has gone and supported many other cleaning workers’ struggles: the strikes at Cheung Chau and Hoi Lai Estate, the fight for minimum wage, his own workplace at Central to fight for paid mealtimes. You could see Law at many actions, from big to small. Though Law says that when he first started he wasn’t well-versed in a lot of labor issues and discourse, he gradually learned about what “the minimum wage,” “the call to increase statutory holidays from seven to twelve days,” and “severance pay” are, and why these are basic workers’ rights to support and campaign for. What’s just and unjust, right and wrong—Law is clear about these in his heart.
Chi-wai gives me the feeling that he is a very morally upright person. I asked him why he joined the union, and he said that because he is a cleaning worker himself, and started “agreeing more [about the struggle] the more I listened in meetings.” He agreed what he should be fighting for, and so he promised to fight with us together. When I asked him what made him happiest in his years in the union, he just simply said when he’s fighting with his colleagues for better conditions. What made him most unhappy was when the union started losing workers.
The labor movement’s elders whom most people know would always say that Hong Kong’s labor education is not great, and so workers don’t have the drive to join a union and so on. Law also agrees; this attitude hasn’t changed for decades. He says that workers’ “centripetal force” isn’t enough; they only tend to join and pay dues only when there’s an issue. Organizing relationships become transactional, and workers’ participation rate remains low.
Cleaning work is low-income labor par excellence—low wages, long work hours, and the cleaning workers’ union’s first demand was fighting for minimum wage legislation. As Law recalls, “HKCTU only demanded 33 HKD per hour at the time, but our union and the security guards’ union had already been asking for 35 HKD per hour.” The cleaning workers’ union had been independently affiliated, and on policy issues, its stances can differ from the HKCTU leadership. Unfortunately, the government only agreed to a 28 dollar per hour minimum wage. At the time, a cleaning worker’s monthly wage could be as low as 1000 HKD, with some workers reportedly receiving as low as 7 dollars an hour. To protect the rest of the workers, the cleaning workers’ union acquiesced to the government’s proposition for the time being.
The fight for minimum wage became the high point of the cleaning workers’ union’s organizing, gathering over a thousand new members at its height. This was not because many workers came out to fight for a higher minimum wage, but because the lack of minimum wage at the time provoked many autonomous labor struggles in different shop-floors, bringing many workers into the union. But upon the passing of the minimum wage legislation, many left or became inactive. In recent years, the cleaning workers’ union retained around a hundred or so members. Law’s response is to return to the basic essentials of human relationships: care.
To care about a fellow worker’s family life, working conditions, and health, is like caring for a friend. Even though a union is a political organization that aims to build power and fight for rights, it is still an organization composed of people. Chi-wai hopes that these small steps of care can enhance his colleagues’ centripetal force.
“The union cannot stop”
As HKCTU was discussing its disbanding in recent days, it naturally consulted Law for his thoughts on this issue. He said, “It’s not my individual decision, we should ask the other members. They have the right to propose anything no matter what their thoughts are.” To Law, the union is not just his organization. He values others’ opinions over his own. When I asked him how he cultivated his care for others and ability to listen intentionally to his co-workers, he naturally and confidently responded, “democratic practice is natural and important, it’s a basic principle of being a person.” His response was simple and straightforward, seeing these principles as rational things to grasp.
However, Law is concerned about whether the cleaning workers’ union can effectively function without HKCTU’s support. Especially since many cleaning workers don’t have much education and organizing prowess remains weak, Law worries about the future of the union. But he kept repeating—”the union cannot stop”—without elaborating too much. But one can tell from the firmness of his words and expression that he will continue to fight in the labor movement.
I asked him if he could say a few words to conclude this interview. He thought about it for a moment, and simply said “[I feel] levelheaded.” He added after a few seconds: “These are the worst of times, but we must still have hope. A union does not depend on its staff and leaders, but its members.” In this political environment, “hope” is like an empty word. But Chi-wai told me the answer—hope must depend on all our individual efforts together.