Thousands of Hong Kong medical workers went on strike for a second day on Tuesday to demand that leader Carrie Lam immediately close the city’s border with the mainland to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It shows the growing strength of pro-democracy unions formed in recent months by protesters who want to curb China’s influence on the financial hub. The rise of pro-democracy unions threatens the monopoly of pro-government unions that have an outsized influence on labor policy, and in elections for the city’s Legislative Council and chief executive.
The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, which was formed in December, says it’s already attracted more than 18,000 members -- nearly a quarter of the staff at the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, the city’s second biggest employer. The group said about half of them planned to strike this week in a bid for stronger measures to stop a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 420 people.
The union is among dozens that were formed recently by participants in pro-democracy protests that have rocked the city since last June. In the second half of 2019, the city’s labor department received 135 applications for new trade unions, spanning industries from finance to education and bartenders. That compares with only 10 during same period the previous year.
Hong Kong traditionally has not been a unionized place. The World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings last year put the city as the number one location for its hiring and firing practices among 141 economies. Yet in the category of “workers rights,” it came in at 114 on the list.
This week’s strike among medical workers, which was opposed by the government and drew criticism in some local newspapers, will test the ability of protesters to turn their street numbers into organized collective action.
The formation of unions is also another step for Hong Kong protesters to have more say in the city’s carefully managed elections. They are seeking to erode the influence of pro-Beijing unions, including the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, which command five seats on the Legislative Council.