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The History of Hong Kong IV:In the Tides of Labour Disturbances

After the Second World War, although the Hong Kong Government adopted a series of measures to stabilise prices, the increase in wages failed to catch up with the increase in prices, leading to numerous labour disturbances in the post-war period. In 1947 alone, there were more than 50 cases of trade disputes.

Professor HO Pui-yin, the Vice Chair of the Department of History of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, states that trade disputes in the early post-war period were mostly economic disputes. The British Hong Kong Government was worried that its governance would be affected by the increasingly stronger trade unions, thus it implemented the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinance (“the Ordinance”) in April 1948. The Ordinance stipulated that all trade unions must register with the Registrar of Trade Unions, which was doubled by the Commissioner for Labour back then, to be officially recognised as legitimate trade unions in Hong Kong, in order to aid monitoring the operation of trade unions. In addition, as the Ordinance prohibited establishment of general unions, the leftist Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions and the rightist Hong Kong and Kowloon Trades Union Council could only be registered as societies.

The subsequent political development in China led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In the 1950’s, marked political differences emerged between trade unions in Hong Kong. Trade unions were no longer only fighting for labour welfare, but also promulgating their political beliefs.

In 1950, after the “Russell Street Incident” happened during the tram worker go-slow, the British Hong Kong Government invoked the Expulsion of Undesirables Ordinance to deport some trade union leaders which was a heavy strike on the operation of leftist trade unions. The “March First Incident” in 1952 clearly reflected that the British Hong Kong Government would like to avoid trade unions from intervening in the livelihood issues in Hong Kong. According to ZHOU Yi, author of “A History of Labour Movement in Hong Kong”, the leftist labour movement was “toned down” after the “March First Incident” and its direction of development was changed from fierce class conflict to welfare development.

The “Double Tenth Riots” in 1956 and the “1967 Riots” were severe blows to the leftist and rightist trade unions respectively. The “1967 Riots” was also an important turning point in Hong Kong’s labour movement, bringing about the enactment of the first Employment Ordinance in Hong Kong. Labours began to be alert to trade unions with political attitudes, giving rise to independent trade unions which claimed to prioritise securing employee welfare and have no political background. Furthermore, labours bypassed trade unions and organised industrial actions themselves, and dared striving for their rights. Since then, the development of labour movement in Hong Kong entered another new stage.

Producer: PANG Chi-man
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