After the suppression, low wages in Hong Kong face organizational obstacles, business and economy

China Hong Kong- When Foodpanda Hong Kong announced plans to reduce the payment for each order by another HK$2 (US$0.25) earlier this month, Ahmed and hundreds of other passengers went on strike.

“This is the boiling point,” Ahmed said, asking for a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation. “Everyone is very angry. They don’t want to work for such a low salary.”

The Pakistani joined the food delivery platform at the height of the pandemic in 2020, when his trading business was closed along with the city border.

With almost no vacation every week, he can earn up to 30,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$3,850) per month to support his family of four. However, as restaurants reopened and demand for food delivery declined, the company cut the income of couriers by steadily lowering the wages per order.

By October, Ahmed had difficulty earning 25,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$3,209) every month, of which one-fifth was spent on repairing motorcycles.

Soon after Foodpanda announced the salary cut, hundreds of members poured into a Telegram group first established by couriers to discuss technical issues in the company’s application.

“People came like flies,” Ahmed recalled, exacerbated by dissatisfaction with pay, arbitrary suspension of accounts, and unreasonable penalties.

“We are humans, not dogs,” during the subsequent strike from November 13-14, workers posted signs on their motorcycles and bicycles, which successfully forced Foodpanda to enter the negotiating table. Its executives A more generous compensation package was agreed on Thursday.

The plight of gig workers is not unique to Hong Kong, but gig workers in the global financial center are now struggling.

In one of the most unequal cities on the planet, workers not only have to oppose their companies based on the notorious preference for employers over employees, but they also have to oppose a government that is increasingly intolerant of any form of organization and dissent.

The pro-democracy Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions voted to dissolve last month, citing political pressure after the passage of a comprehensive national security law [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Last month, the City’s largest independent trade union confederation (CTU) announced its decision to disband and join a long list of civil society organizations that have succumbed under pressure from Beijing to implement large-scale national security laws. Democracy protests in 2019.

The founders of CTU and other union leaders were imprisoned for their role in protests or alleged violations of the National Security Act, which wiped out almost all political opposition in this former British colony and kept pro-democratic organizations and the media silence. The governments of Beijing and Hong Kong praised the National Security Law for restoring peace and stability in the city after months of frequent violent protests.

As a former member said, if there is no umbrella organization, the union will become a “snail without a shell.”

Among the workers organized locally, the political atmosphere has also been changed.

On Wednesday, when representatives of Foodpanda couriers were bargaining with the company, dozens of riders gathering outside were warned by the police not to participate in unauthorized gatherings and threatened to be fined for violating social distancing rules.

The dissolution of CTU is inevitable, because in the decades after the city was handed over to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the relatively free political system that ensured pluralism disappeared overnight.

“The way forward is that we have to find out by ourselves,” To said. “Union work is long and slow. Whether it will be sustainable after decentralization is still a question.”

Hong Kong has some of the worst wealth inequalities on the planet [File: Chan Long Hei]

In 2017, as the chairman of the cleaning service industry union, Du led public housing cleaners on a 10-day strike to restore severance pay and salary increases. This is a rare victory for grassroots workers.

His team worked tirelessly behind the scenes, raising funds for workers during the strike, gaining support from residents and keeping in touch with the media.

Their victory triggered a wave of labor actions in public housing estates and forced the Hong Kong government to amend the law in 2019. A new clause requires contractors to pay employees contract termination fees.

However, as the cleaner’s contract expired last month, they complained that the employer had played an old trick: to intimidate the worker to resign, thereby paying severance pay. Some cleaners said they were tricked into signing additional contracts, depriving them of their right to tips, while a few refused to say that they were threatened with pay cuts and other penalties.

In today’s political environment, it is unimaginable that Du’s election campaign on behalf of the cleaner will be repeated. CTU no longer provides the same support, and their public allies have been removed from the political system. District councillor Yang Yu, allied with cleaners, was one of more than 200 opposition councillors who resigned under pressure in July.

“Grass-roots workers may not have a keen political acumen, but they are not ignorant,” Du said. “They realize that the people on their side are disintegrating, and their vocal confidence will be greatly affected.”

To said he is worried that it will become more and more difficult to amplify the voice of workers in Hong Kong. Advocates say that labor protection has been lax and poorly implemented.

“Hong Kong’s labor protection has always been weak. Without our voice, the government might only take the initiative to improve policies when the pig is flying,” he said.

He Hongxing, the leader of the CTU’s former affiliated catering and hotel employees’ general union, said the government has done little to maintain the standards of the gig economy.

“Even without CTU, our network will not disappear. We will continue to organize,” He said. “But without any representatives in the parliamentary system, our propaganda will never reach the Legislative Council.”

Silver lining

However, as the case of Foodpanda couriers shows, there is a silver lining. Although the company did not increase the cost of each order on the grounds of its global strategy, it agreed to suspend interest rate cuts until June next year, and pay bonuses during peak hours and provide other forms of compensation.

After the agreement was reached, Foodpanda Hong Kong Operations Director Pedros Dias attributed the dispute to “miscommunication” with the team in an interview with the media, although many riders complained that they had little way to express their opinions.

He, who represented the Foodpanda rider during the negotiations, said that the unity of the workers is the key to their success and issued a powerful statement that cannot be ignored.

Although many progressive trade unions formed during the 2019 protests have been disbanded under political repression, He believes that social movements have stimulated a new political awakening and encouraged citizen participation.

“Citywide strikes may still be out of reach, but people realize that through strikes, they are participating in industrial actions that may affect the city’s politics and economy,” He said.

“Workers are beginning to understand that when they find a problem, they must speak up. The Solidarity boat may have disappeared, but people are still alive and doing their best in their respective industries.”

As for Ahmed, he was back on his motorcycle. He was not completely satisfied with the results of the strike and admitted that he had to compromise. But he is delivering food now, and he knows that the couriers can use their collective power to demand change.

“This is for our home, our family and our survival in Hong Kong,” he said.

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