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Occupy tramlines: The union that fights for workers’ rights in Hong Kong

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Ho Chi-kin, the honourable chairman of the Hong Kong Tramways Workers Union, based opposite theDesk in Sai Wan, recounts nearly 100 years of fighting for labour rights

Hong Kong is undoubtedly one of the most business-friendly cities in the world. With incredible connectivity to the rest of the globe, efficient infrastructure and comprehensive labour regulations for both employees and employers alike, we really take for granted the casualness with which we drop the term ‘Asia’s financial centre’ into any given conversation about the city.

But it was not always like this here. Because before extensive legislation was passed and trade norms codified, business relations were largely unregulated and workers were easily exploited and overworked. For a large part of the 20th century, it was completely up to fed-up, hardworking unionised workers who would also become Hong Kong’s ‘pioneers of protest’ to pave the way for workers’ rights and protections with their sweat and blood. We speak to one famous workers’ union with deep historical significance in Hong Kong that moved headquarters just this January from Wan Chai to just a block down from theDesk in Queen’s Road West, Sai Wan.

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On the third floor of an unassuming office building is the Hong Kong Tramways Workers Union, which was founded in 1920. This is arguably the historical locus of the labour movement in Hong Kong. We stop by for a chat with Ho Chi-kin, the honourable chairman of the union, who began working for the tramway company in 1969 and retired in 2006. Ho has worked in all imaginable posts on the tramways, from driving and selling tickets to opening tram gates and coaching new drivers. He’s uniquely equipped with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the union’s history and significance in wider Hong Kong. “If you want me to tell you about the union,” he warns, “we’d have to go far back. It will take a while.” We boldly accept his challenge.

The HKTWU first asserted its uniquely confrontational reputation by spearheading the anti-imperialist Canton-Hong Kong strikes and upheavals in 1925. These began in Shanghai after a Shanghainese worker was killed by an imperialist soldier while protesting working conditions in a factory. But they soon spread to Hong Kong as Chinese workers showed their solidarity against imperialist forces. And the HKTWU was at the forefront. The then-vice-chairman and PR representative of the union were both elected as leaders of the movement, leading 50,000 locals out of Hong Kong towards Guangdong.

Ho tells us that it was then, in the union’s early history, that a lasting penchant for challenging authority was sparked. Later, in 1949, after especially trying times in the Second World War, tramway workers became fed up with being overworked and underpaid. But after the 1925 upheavals, striking was officially prohibited in the Illegal Strikes and Lock-outs Ordinance. With this freshly in the forefront of people’s minds, Ho tells us how tramway unionists devised a strategy to get their point across without actually ‘striking’. For three days, workers showed up to their shifts and trams continued to chug along the tracks on schedule but all ticket sellers (who were then one of the four workers onboard at any given time) refused to sell anyone tickets. And under the colonial government’s failure to intervene, the Tramline Company itself shut down all its lines, resulting in a 44-day deadlock between the workers and the company.

“If the government wanted to pass a new labour regulation, they’d do it with the tram workers first, because if you could pass something with the tram workers, you could easily pass it with the rest of the city”

The ‘strike’ in 1949 had extraordinarily far-reaching effects as trams were a central way of getting around. “You could either take the bus or the tram,” Ho tells us, “and people took the tram because it was more convenient.” But the strike still received considerable local civilian backing, with many going to the headquarters (then on Russell Street, Causeway Bay) to show their support. Even the now-defunct Chi Fu Dairy Farm in Pok Fu Lam threatened to stop milking cattle and, even more drastically, drive the cattle into the city, threatening total chaos. Ho, gesturing to the banner hanging on the window of the small office in Sai Wan, tells us: “The number 1.30, as in January 30, is very important to us. That’s why it’s on our logo.” January 30, 1950, marked the day that police violently cracked down on the crowds and knocked on the doors to capture and deport all but two of the leaders of the union and send them to Guangdong. When it became totally unbearable for the trams to stay out of commission, the tramway companies relented with the union’s demands. But the deported leaders? “They never got to come back,” says Ho. “They stayed there until they died.”

Such was the huge sway that the HKTWU had in Hong Kong. “Back then,” recalls Ho, “if the government wanted to pass a new labour regulation, they’d do it with the tram workers first, because if you could pass something with the tram workers, you could easily pass it with the rest of the city.” Since tramway workers worked notoriously long hours and had to adhere to such strictly regimented schedules, labour regulations were extremely difficult to apply to them. Besides, as it was proven time and time again, it was seriously no easy feat getting anything by the plucky worker’s union.

Over the decades, throughout the Chinese Revolution and several other clashes with the brass (which always resulted in better pay and working conditions for the workers), the role of the HKTWU, which at one time served 80 percent of its 1,600-strong workforce, and other workers’ unions peaked and then gradually declined as newer consolidated labour regulation regimes, such as the Employment Ordinance and MPF schemes, were put into place. “The more labour laws are perfected,” says Ho, “the lesser the role for unions. We had to hound our employers for our rights back then.”

Ho recalls the difficult-yet-memorable ‘heydays’ of working on the tramlines. Recalling his own experiences, he tells us: “I had to wake up at 3am. Work was far away. I had to take the same van every day to Wan Chai, for 13 years, at 3.30am. I’d arrive at 4am. The worst was when it was cold, three or four degrees, standing and waiting for the van.” But between the pressures of difficult work, there were still moments of joy and warmth, says Ho, thanks to camaraderie between workers that the union both embodies and strengthens. He fondly tells us of the time he fell asleep during a ‘tram jam’ and awoke to find cigarette butts in his mouth, carefully placed there by one of his co-workers. A pretty ingenious prank, if you ask us. But waving his hand, almost as if to reassure us, he says: “It’s all passed now. It was all a couple of decades ago.”

In three years’ time, the union will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Today, Hong Kong’s iconic trams still chug humbly along its tracks between North Point and Kennedy Town. Each resonant ‘ding!’ is an abiding nod to those who painstakingly and with such political savvy paved the way for labour rights in Hong Kong. The tracks, the remaining cars and the dwindling 600 staff members are merely the ‘skeleton’ of what was once a huge social presence and labour force in Hong Kong, says Ho, who adds that they are only what’s left over after valuable land once owned by HK Tramways Limited was sold and redeveloped into commercial properties after corporate acquisition.

But what grew from the bare bones of the union’s early protests have developed into strong labour laws and a robust protest culture that Hong Kong proudly touts – valuable social assets that are all the more relevant today. Now, we take to the streets and stop traffic in protest to fight for our rights. Little did we know that traffic once had to stop decades ago for 44 days for us to have that same power now. We have the Hong Kong Tramways Workers’ Union to thank for that.

To get in touch with the HKTWU, call 2892 0093 or visit 3/F, 1-3 Woo Hop St. Also see hktwu.org.hk.

By Grace Fung

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