Talks between striking cleaning workers and their former employer have broken down after the company offered them HK$200 in severance pay for each year they were employed.

Cleaners at Cheung Sha Wan’s Hoi Lai Estate went on strike last week, saying that they were denied severance payments when their company’s contract with the public housing estate ended in October.

They claimed that they were forced to sign voluntary resignation agreements by their employer, Man Shun Hong Kong and Kowloon Cleaning Company.

hoi lai cleaning workers strike
Photo: Inmedia.

They were then re-employed by a new cleaning contractor – Hong Kong Commercial Cleaning – which declined to honour long service payments for their tenures with Man Shun. Local politicians and media have alleged that the old and new firms are related. iCable reported that they share the same office, and a Commercial Cleaning staffer tried to hide a sign reading “Man Shun” with a piece of cloth when journalists visited last Wednesday.

On Tuesday, representatives from Man Shun and the workers attended talks at the Labour Department, but they ended after the firm offered HK$200 for each year the workers were employed.

The Cleaning Services Industry Labour Union said that a cleaning worker with nine years tenure should be paid about HK$14,000, after MPF retirement fund offsetting.

“They are treating us as beggars,” one employee said after the talks.

hoi lai cleaning workers strike
Photo: Screenshot/Commercial Radio.

Lee Cheuk-yan, Secretary General of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, said on a Commercial Radio show on Wednesday morning that the union was targeting a tactic commonly used by employers, who – when transferring workers to other companies – deny them severance pay after they sign voluntary resignation agreements.

He added that the workers will lose higher pay and increased holidays associated with the length of their tenure after transferring to the new firm.

A Man Shun representative previously told Apple Daily that workers signed resignation agreements of their own accord after having a week to consider whether they wanted to work at other estates.

Scuffles with reporters

Local media reported that Man Shun’s representative, a Mr. Yeung, was involved in scuffles with reporters as he left the meeting on Tuesday. A video posted by Apple Daily appeared to show the representative surrounded by reporters asking questions as he left. Some pushing and shoving ensued, with a camera person being pushed backward.

hoi lai cleaning workers strike
Photo: Cleaning Services Industry Labour Union.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association issued a statement condemning the “attack.” It said that reporters were pushed away, and an i-Cable reporter was hit. The association called on the public to respect reporters’ rights to conduct interviews and said that violent methods should not be used to impede the process under any circumstances.

RTHK reported that journalists called the police, who arrested a man who was suspected to be involved.

Correction 01/04: A previous version of this article paraphrased Lee Cheuk-yan as saying that the HKCTU was using a tactic commonly used by employers to deny employees severance pay. In fact, the union was targeting the company’s tactic. 

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.