Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 4: March 25, 1997 

Solidarity with Hong Kong's Workers

Hong Kong's workers and trade unions, faced with a perilous future after China absorbs the colony in fewer than 100 days from today, can count on the AFL-CIO to "do whatever necessary" to support their struggle. That's the commitment that AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney made in Washington March 20 to leaders of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU). And that will be the message that Sweeney will deliver personally when he visits Hong Kong in April.

At a large reception he hosted at AFL-CIO headquarters, Sweeney introduced two top leaders of the Hong Kong CTU: Lau Chin Shek, its chairman, and Lee Cheuk-Yan, executive director. Both are also leaders of the Hong Kong's Democratic Party, and in 1995 both were elected by large margins to Hong Kong's Legislative Council, the law-making body which Beijing has already decided to dissolve after July 1.

In his remarks Sweeney pointed to this anti-democratic dissolution as just one example of steps already taken by China "to roll back civil society and limit democratic freedoms now existing in Hong Kong." Sweeney cited two other backward moves by Beijing:

Even though both Lau and Lee will be "prime targets" of the new Communist regime in Hong Kong, "they have made it very clear," Sweeney pointed out, "that they will remain in Hong Kong after July 1 and will continue to fight for the fundamental rights of their members and Hong Kong's working people."

Because of their advocacy role for workers, trade unions are "once again...primary targets of repressive forces out to undermine basic freedoms," Sweeney said. "We saw this in South Africa under apartheid. We saw this in Chile under Pinochet, and we saw this in Poland." He then continued with this commitment:

"And just as the AFL-CIO stood in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in these three countries, I want to let Brother Lau and Brother Lee know that the AFL-CIO will stand in solidarity with the working people of Hong Kong and that we will do whatever necessary, in concert with the ICFTU and the international labor movement, to support your struggle during the months and years ahead for basic worker rights. And I will be going to Hong Kong next month to deliver this message personally."

Key Test of Whether Beijing Keeps Promises

With Beijing's negotiators now making all sorts of promises in hopes of gaining quick entry into the World Trade Organization, Hong Kong will be a major test of whether Beijing can be trusted to keep its word. As Sweeney pointed out:
"China has made a commitment, under international agreement registered with the United Nations, to preserve Hong Kong's current economic, social, legal, and administrative systems, and a 'high degree of autonomy' for the next 50 years--in other words, to leave Hong Kong alone."
A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal was quite specific on this point: "A crucial test of China's promise to leave Hong Kong's free and open society unchanged for 50 years will be whether the new government takes its lead from Beijing in suppressing trade unions' advocacy role for workers."

Even as a colony ruled from London, Hong Kong has long thrived not just as a commercial and financial hub but as a center for worker rights advocacy. Ten years ago, I first visited offices of worker rights groups located in a nondescript building at 57 Peking Road in downtown Kowloon. There, in the offices of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, I picked up a copy of their monthly bulletin, Change. I still have a faded copy of the August 1987 issue. Back then, Change was already calling for direct elections:

"As a labor organization with a church background, the CIC is deeply dissatisfied that the workers have all along been excluded from policy making bodies....A system of appointment or indirect elections [as then prevailed] restricts and curtails the political rights of the workers. As a result [government] policies ignore people's livelihood...and delay the passing of labor laws."
So there you have another test of how Hong Kong will fare after July 1. The Christian Industrial Committee, established in 1967 by an ecumenical body of Protestant churches in Hong Kong, still publishes Change. The latest issue, dated February, is a four-page report on the plight of workers in China and the inactivity of the official trade unions. Will Change still be able to publish such articles? Will it and its publisher, the Christian Industrial Committee, be allowed to continue at all?

You can keep up with developments by subscribing to Change. Contact the Hong Kong CIC by airmail at 57 Peking Road, 3/F, Kowloon, Hong Kong, by phone at 852/2366 5680, by fax at 852/ 2724 5098, or email at kkcic@topaz.hknet.


Will the West Listen to this Mission?

Martin Lee, leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, is on a marathon mission to alert Western leaders to the colony's probable fate under Beijing's rule. Along with his deputy, Szeto Wah (also a union leader), he is visiting the United States, Canada, and Europe. In Geneva Lee will testify before the United Nations Human Rights Commission on April 7. In Washington, he will address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On April 9 he will receive the 1997 Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy.

How much does President Clinton really care about what will happen in Hong Kong? For an indicator, watch whether President Clinton or Vice President Gore receives Martin Lee in the White House.

Remembering Victims of Toy Factory Disaster

May 10, 1997, will mark the fourth anniversary of a disastrous fire in a Bangkok toy factory. The victims, mostly young women, numbered 189 dead and 469 injured. In their memory, a group of non-governmental groups from Hong Kong and Thailand will hold a workshop May 10-13 in Bangkok on workers' health and safety and the rights of industrial accident victims.

The sponsors have emailed invitations to labor-related groups in other Asian countries, and have also asked for donations to help on travel expenses. For further information, contact: Mr. Chan Kam Hong, Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, 3/4, 57 Peking Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong, fax (852) 2724 5098, or Ms. Alice Kwan, Asia Monitor Resource Center, 444 Nathan Rd., 8-B, Kowloon, Hong Kong, email

That initiative is another example of why Hong Kong's freedoms matter--and even far beyond its own borders. 

Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
(Send e-mail)

Bulletin No. II-4: March 25, 1997


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