On April 14, Hong Kong recorded only three—the lowest number of new coronavirus cases—in over a month. All of those cases have had a travel history, indicating that domestic spread may be under control. While Hongkongers are eager to regain a sense of normalcy in their everyday lives, this is not the time for us to forget what has been made clear before and during the pandemic.

On the heels of the wave of anti-authoritarian protests that took over the city since June 2019 and the current coronavirus outbreak, Hongkongers now have firsthand understanding of how interconnected their everyday lives are with politics. With waning street protests and a pandemic that has since been contained, the Carrie Lam regime will likely attempt to create a “new normal” for Hongkongers by erasing the grassroots organising that has emerged during the anti-authoritarian movement.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam (centre), holds a press conference on April 8 on measures to fight the epidemic. Photo: GovHK.

Despite suppression, many of these organisation persisted when the pandemic hit Hong Kong, providing necessary community support to industries and people who have been neglected by the government.

We should see the protest movement and the pandemic as a wake-up call for Hongkongers to acknowledge the labor of people who have been making, sometimes at the risk of their own safety and comfort, the city a more liveable space for all. Hence, despite the optimism we may feel for a post-pandemic future, we must not forget the sociopolitical injustices that have been revealed, particularly the ways in which our society deems certain people’s lives disposable as we take their labor for granted. We also must continue to acknowledge and cultivate the courage, creativity, and resilience grassroots organizers and workers have demonstrated to get us here.

Labour unions

When the coronavirus first hit Hong Kong at the beginning of 2020, the government had failed to prepare sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for the city’s frontline medical workers, putting their lives in imminent danger. In addition, despite widespread public pressure to close the Hong Kong-China border, Carrie Lam has refused to implement a total closure.

Hospital Authority Employees Alliance members on second phase strike outside Hospital Authority headquarters. Photo: Hospital Authority Employees Alliance.

In light of the government’s refusal to protect the safety of medical workers, on February 2, the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), a new labour union formed amidst the wave of protests in December, voted for their 18,000 members to go on strike. While the strike ended before HAEA’s demands were met, this incident highlighted the power of pro-democracy unions and grassroots organising that started during Hong Kong’s anti-authoritarian movement.

Even though Hong Kong does not have a strong history of union culture, the movement has prompted workers from smaller industries to organise in order to exert pressure on a government that refuses to listen and engage with the public. Since large-scaled marches and demonstrations are no longer permitted during the pandemic, pro-democracy grassroots unions have since diverted their efforts to subverting the existing electoral

Prior to the formation of these grassroots pro-democracy unions, the Legislative Council and Chief Executive Election Committee were dominated by voters and representatives from pro-establishment trade unions that prioritise Beijing and the Hong Kong government’s interests.

RTHK recently reported that 106 new unions have been formed since the movement to ensure checks and balances in the electoral model. Activists have also created online platforms, such as 7up, to help individuals organise unions in smaller more specialised industries.

The proliferation of grassroots union organising encapsulates the resilience and ingenuity of the movement. It also demonstrates that the will of the people to create radical social change: first through overt confrontations, and now via political subversion of the flawed electoral system. These new pro-democracy unions may be small, but no one should underestimate their power as they become increasingly more integrated into Hongkongers’ social milieu.  

A banner promoting the newly formed union for freelancers. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Essential workers and marginalisation

In addition to medical staff, the pandemic also highlights how reliant we are on the labour of marginalised workers. While most Hongkongers are outraged alongside medical workers who lack the PPE to keep themselves safe, we often overlook how our system has failed to care for other essential workers, such as janitors, street cleaners, and migrant domestic workers.

During the pandemic, we expect these workers to dedicate even more of their energy and time to keep our surroundings clean and our loved ones safe. However, we often neglect the poor working conditions they are in. For instance, after schools in Hong Kong closed, many janitors and street cleaners who must continue to work struggled to properly home-school and care for their children—some have resorted to taking their children to work.

Street cleaners in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

While street cleaners and janitors are on the frontline of the pandemic, they are often not given sufficient face masks by their employers. While grassroots organisations such as FixingHK, a pro-democracy group formed during the Umbrella Movement, have been distributing donated face masks to street cleaners, this is not a sustainable solution to labour inequity.

In addition to street cleaners, domestic workers have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. During the outbreak, Hongkongers are more reliant than ever on the labour of domestic workers to disinfect homes, care for children and elderly, and to manage the stress of the entire household.

Not only are domestic workers expected by employers to work harder and for longer hours, many domestic workers have lost their vacation time because it is no longer safe to gather in public. Domestic workers, in other words, are treated more like tools than human beings who deserve respect and sources of joy.

The International Migrants Alliance Hong Kong & Macau slammed the Labour Department’s suggestion to foreign domestic workers to stay home on their rest day “unfair, unjust and discriminatory”. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

After the pandemic, we need to collectively consider what policies and support must be in place in order to protect marginalised workers whose labour we have taken for granted. In addition to pressuring the Hong Kong government to establish a more comprehensive public support system for child and elderly care, we must cultivate grassroots coalitions with organisations such as Migrante Hong Kong and Autonomous 8A’s Migrant Solidarity Committee.

Since the protest movement that started last summer has since shifted shape due to the pandemic, we can extend the reach and the anti-authoritarian spirit of the movement by cultivating solidarities with marginalised workers from across social strata because regardless of our social class and professions, we should all be treated with dignity and enjoy the right to live in a safe environment where we and our loved ones can thrive.  

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Shui-yin Sharon Yam

Shui-yin Sharon Yam is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship.