Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that the Kowloon Motor Bus Company (KMB) has “room for improvement” over the firing of four drivers who participated in a recent strike.

The four, led by driver Yip Wai-lam, took part in a three-hour strike last month over salary reforms after Yip criticised KMB for making a deal with a union under the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions (FTU). The two sides approved a controversial new wage package, even though other unions were not consulted. The controversy over wages occurred after the fatal Tai Po crash, which left 19 dead and renewed unions’ protests over the treatment of bus drivers.

KMB fired the four employees on Tuesday night but halted its decision hours later following an outcry. Asked by reporters about the company’s actions, Lam, who returned to Hong Kong from Beijing on Wednesday, said it was a labour dispute.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam speaking at the airport. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

“A good relationship between workers and employers is a very key part of harmony in society, thus the government attaches great importance to the relationship and will do its best to act as a mediator to ensure communication and positive development,” Lam said.

“I have yet to receive the full details, but it seems the employer, the bus company, has room to improve,” she added. “I have also noticed that the company has [suspended] the sacking and will look into it via an internal mechanism.”

“I understand that the Labour Department has contacted both sides.”

Government actions urged

After calling the strike last month, Yip had planned to register the newly-established Alliance of Monthly-Paid Bus Drivers as a labour union at the Labour Department.

Before Lam’s press conference, the Alliance published an open letter asking her to step in and ask top labour officials to intervene.

It asked the government to help them return to their posts, investigate whether KMB violated labour laws, and review current laws and protections for workers.

Several pro-democracy parties protested outside the headquarters of Sun Hung Kai, KMB’s biggest shareholder, on Wednesday.

KMB protest Sun Hung Kai headquarters
Photo: In-Media.

Former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said the KMB Staff Union has never been recognised by KMB, even though it was established almost 30 years ago. The union is under the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), the FTU’s pro-democracy equivalent.

He said KMB could recognise any union as it pleases since collective bargaining is not part of Hong Kong laws. Therefore, the company is unlikely to recognise unions fighting for labour nights, Lee said.

Collective bargaining

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said on a RTHK radio programme on Wednesday that the Labour Department will step in if employers do not follow labour laws.

Law admitted that Hong Kong does not have any laws to protect workers’ right to collective bargaining through unions, but some companies voluntarily conduct collective bargaining with workers.

Law said Hong Kong’s situation is special as there are often many unions inside one company due to differences in political stances.

“If many unions are competing with each other, it is difficult for employers to reach a consensus with unions,” Law said.

Law Chi-kwong
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong. Photo: GovHK.

A law protecting the right of collective bargaining raised by then-lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan was passed in June 1997 before the Handover.

However, the law was frozen by the Beijing-controlled Provisional Legislative Council on July 16, 1997, just two weeks after the Handover, supported by some lawmakers in the FTU.

The law was then scrapped in October 1997, also with support from some FTU lawmakers.

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Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.