Thousands of beleaguered Hong Kong workers took to the streets on Wednesday to mark the city’s annual Labour Day march, demanding a living wage and limiting weekly working hours to 44.

The march was organised by the pro-democracy Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and saw crowds set off from Victoria Park at 3pm, along Hennessey Road to government headquarters in Admiralty, chanting “solidarity with workers” and “we’re at bursting point.” Organisers estimated around 2,200 people attended, whilst the police put the figure at a 1,400.

Labour day protest march rally
‘Low salary.’ Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Another march led by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions took place earlier that day, which organisers said was attended by 4,500 people, although police said 3,400 showed up. Attendees urged the government to regulate working hours and subsidise the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) – a compulsory pension fund for employees.

The government has increased the statutory minimum wage from HK$34.5 to HK37.5 per hour, with effect on Wednesday. But critics have said the rise falls short of a living wage, which Oxfam calculated to be HK$54.7 her hour.

HKFP meets eight key worker groups that participated in the Confederation of Trade Unions’ march: 

Hong Kong Catholic Diocese Commission for Labour Affairs

Members of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese Commission for Labour Affairs targeted the government’s biennial review of the minimum wage, which they said should be done every year in order to adjust for inflation and rising living costs.

Labour day protest march rally
Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The commission also urged authorities to protect part-time workers’ rights, by ensuring that those who had worked under the same employer for four consecutive weeks, 18 hours per week, were protected and eligible for benefits, such as a severance payment in the event of dismissal.

Alexander Kwok, a permanent deacon of the Catholic Diocese, told HKFP that he attends the Labour Day march every year to rally against “injustice in the current law.” Although he acknowledged that legislative progress has been made during this period, he said more energy had to be poured into ensuring workers were protected by the law.

“The voices of the workers are very few,” he said. “And even some of the workers represented in the Legislative Council, their background is to support the central government, so gradually they become political instead of fighting for the benefit for the local workers, which is something that is very, very disappointing.”

Hong Kong Teaching and Research Support Staff Union

A union representing the interests of academic staff at higher education institutions reiterated their 2018 demand for government action against short-term contracts.

Labour day protest march rally
Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Glenn Ng, a founding member of the association, told HKFP that contracts can range from as little as two months to a year. “It hurts our members’ labour rights because if you don’t have a two-year contract, you won’t get a severance [payment],” he said. “If you [have short] contract terms all the time, you can’t accumulate your work experience. Your new employer might not recognise your [past] work experience.”

According to Hong Kong’s Employment Ordinance, only those who have worked under a continuous contract for 24 months are eligible for a severance payment if the contract ends.

Ng said that, since the government discontinued reference pay scales in the early 2000s, there are fewer safeguards to protect against exploitative employers who underpay teaching staff. “In most universities, we don’t have a pay scale to follow. It is arbitrarily decided by our bosses,” he said.

Community Care and Nursing Home Workers General Union

Among the key concerns voiced by a union for workers in elderly homes and centres subsidised by the Social Welfare Department were long working hours and “unfair” pay. One union member had her face and body painted blue to represent her sadness, she said.

Labour day protest march rally
Issac Tsang, committee organiser for the Community Care and Nursing Home Workers General Union. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Isaac Tsang, a committee organiser, told HKFP the monthly salaries of top management staff are equal to that of some frontline workers’ annual salaries. “Those subsidies are public money, from the taxpayer, and those organisations are misusing public money,” he said.

Tsang added that an ageing society has placed a strain on elderly homes, but workers’ salaries were not increasing despite a labour shortage that has left existing staff overburdened.

McDonald’s staff

Staff at fast food giant McDonald’s voiced concerns over income instability and poor working hours.

Danny Ho, who has worked as a McDonald’s delivery staffer for three months, told HKFP that, since the American chain outsourced its delivery service to SF Express, the company ceased making employee MPF payments, and no longer paid drivers per hour but per order, amounting to around HK$20 each. “We don’t know how much we’ll earn this month or next month, so it is really stressful,” he said, adding that employees often cannot afford basic living expenses to support their families. “McDonald’s, as the biggest fast-food company, should be setting an example by at least having a living wage, like HK$55 [per hour].”

Labour day protest march rally
Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

He added that drivers’ schedules were divided into either four-hour working slots during busy business hours or 11-hour days. “Which is crazy. How can these drivers drive for 11 hours per day?” he said.

Ho was clad in a Ronald McDonald mascot outfit with “blood” painted as tears coming from his eyes which he said represented the pain McDonald’s workers endure.

PCCW Staff Association

A trade union representing workers for PCCW, a Hong Kong-based telecommunications company, took aim at long and unsocial work hours, which they said has a detrimental impact on their loved ones.

Harry Yip, communications chairman for the union, told HKFP that employees are contracted to work eight hours a day but often do overtime, at 48 to 50 hours per week, for no extra pay. “We need more time with our families,” he said. “It has an impact on the whole society because all the workers have to stay overtime so they don’t have time to educate their children.”

Labour day protest march rally
Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Yip added the union has pushed for regulated working hours for over 20 years. “We come every year and see no change from the government. They keep protecting the big corporations,” he said.

Nepalese Cleaning Workers Union

A union representing Nepalese cleaners called for higher salaries. Its members are often subcontracted and hired by the government or private companies to clean areas including markets, streets, public toilets and offices.

Labour day protest march rally
Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Rabina Limbu, a union organiser, told HKFP insufficient pay in an expensive city often forces migrant cleaners to live in subdivided flats and impacts their ability to pick up Cantonese or English – Hong Kong’s two official languages. “Because of the low salary and it is an expensive city, many of them have to work two jobs and don’t have the time to attend language classes,” she said.

Concerning CSSA and Low Income Alliance

Members of Concerning CSSA and Low Income Alliance made long working hours a key concern of their march.

Hason Lee, a social worker, told HKFP that some of his colleagues have fallen sick from working long hours. “We think this is a very problematic labour policy that needs to change,” he said. “It affects people’s mental and physical health, and also their social hours. They don’t have time to make friends or see [their] families.”

Concerning CSSA and Low Income Alliance
Concerning CSSA and Low Income Alliance. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

In January, the government increased the eligibility age for elderly Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) payments from 60 to 65, effective the month after. After widespread criticism from across the political spectrum, a concessionary measure was introduced for able-bodied adults aged 60-64 receiving CSSA to make up for the shortfall.

Asian Migrants Coordinating Body

Members of the advocacy group the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, which focuses on foreign domestic workers, urged the government to introduce measures to ensure domestic workers have 11 uninterrupted hours of rest per week. They also called upon Hong Kong to criminalise “inhumane” living conditions and to ensure food rations provided by employers were sufficient.

Eni Lestari, a spokesperson for the body, told HKFP she was concerned for future foreign domestic workers coming to Hong Kong since the government had failed to address many of their concerns over the years. “If the situation doesn’t change then the new workers who come to the city will just become another slave,” she said, adding the Labour Department had refused to organise consultation sessions with helpers during their statutory rest days on the weekend.

Labour day protest march rally
Eni Lestari (centre), spokesperson for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The government released a statement in response underlining recent moves to increase the statutory minimum wage and introduce five-day paternity leave.

“The Labour Department is formulating the working hours guidelines through its industry-based tripartite committees, setting out the proposed working hours arrangements, overtime compensation arrangements and good working hours management measures for employers’ reference and adoption,” a spokesperson said, adding the 11-sector-specific guidelines aim to address divergent views and the absence of a “broad-based consensus.”

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.