About 40 pro-democracy unions have formed in recent months or are in the process of registering with the government, with dozens more starting to organise, according to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). Labour Department records show that 25 new unions registered last year, compared to 13 in 2018. Of those, 18 formed in the second half of the year, as protests escalated, according to New York Times.
The confederation, which last month started running crash courses on establishing unions, said about 2,000 people have already joined unions up to now in January and thousands more joined in late 2019. The city has a population of about 7.4 million.
Like many new protest tactics, the call to unionise first spread via the encrypted messaging app Telegram, where a channel promoting labour organisation has grown to more than 74,000 subscribers in less than three months.
Traditional unions in Hong Kong are seen by citizens primarily as clubs for hobby classes, banquets and retail discounts. The new unions are motivated more by protecting workers from being punished by employers for expressing their views.
About two months after protests began in June over a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions of suspected criminals to China, protesters got a wake-up call on Beijing's powers of coercion. The mainland's aviation regulator demanded Hong Kong's flag carrier Cathay Pacific suspend staff involved in or supporting demonstrations. Many new unionists say the problem is widespread, especially where bosses are keen to avoid conflict with China for fear of damaging business.
The drive to unionise comes as Hong Kong is grappling with a recession as tourist numbers and retail sales decline in the face of violent protests.
While the new unions cannot promise much in terms of immediate economic benefits, they may in time be able to organise more effective strikes and address the city's deep inequalities if they get the necessary union density.
Many new union leaders say they recognise that gaining members and changing cultural attitudes to unions will take time. But they are committed to improving workers' rights, with a long-term goal of organising mass strikes to increase pressure on the government to allow everyone the right to vote for the city's leader.
See also ‘Resist tyranny, join a union’: Huge turnout as Hongkongers hit the streets for New Year’s Day protest with lots of photos from the demonstrations
Source: New York Times (Reuters)