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Hong Kong Lacking Fundamental Employee Rights

January 21 2006 - A recent report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is critical of Hong Kong's continuing failure to ensure fundamental employment rights. It highlights lack of legal recognition for trade unions, absence of collective bargaining, and insufficient protection against various forms of discrimination.

Lee Cheuk Yan, general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions said:

"The working conditions for most workers in Hong Kong - one of the richest places in the world and with a GDP per capita at the level of the UK, France, Germany and Italy - are a disgrace. Workers are exploited and denied the right to effective representation. Hong Kong is the only developed economy without legislation on maximum working hours. Working weeks of up to 60 hours and more are not unusual and yet the share of national income that goes to workers is among the lowest among the industrialized countries. It is obvious that the workers of Hong Kong suffer badly as a result of the lack of rights to effective representation."

Unlike mainland China, independent, democratic trade unions are allowed in Hong Kong, and the right to strike is supported by legislation. However, legal and practice loopholes limit exercise of these rights. For example, the right to strike is rendered ineffective by employment contract clauses stipulating that absence can be considered breach of contract potentially leading to dismissal.

With no recognition of collective bargaining, workers are dependent on the attitude of employers to joint negotiation and the implementation of agreements. Only 1 per cent of the workforce is covered by collective agreements and even these are not legally binding. The report argues that this is contrary to international conventions Hong Kong claims to uphold.

Harassment and discrimination against trade union members by employers is another obstacle to effective representation and a breach of fundamental internationally agreed principles of employment. Workers sacked for trade union membership have no legal mechanism for securing reinstatement. The UN's International Labour Organization has consistently criticized this practice, but the government has shown no commitment to addressing the issue.

The report identifies widespread discrimination on grounds of gender and ethnicity in Hong Kong. Women earn up to 30 per cent less than men for the same work, and migrants from neighbouring countries and mainland China continue to be stigmatized and marginalized.

Guy Ryder, general secretary of ITUC said:

"The massive pay gap calls for determined measures to end gender discrimination, and while a Race Discrimination Bill has recently been enacted to address discrimination against ethnic minorities, it regrettably fails to protect migrant workers who come from the mainland. This and the other violations identified in the report need to be remedied as a matter of urgency."

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