Mon. Dec 6th, 2021

Hong Kong, China – When Foodpanda Hong Kong announced plans earlier this month to cut payments by order by another 2 Hong Kong dollars ($ 0.25), Ahmad and hundreds of other riders went on strike.

“It was the boiling point,” says Ahmad, who asked to use a pseudonym for fears of retaliation. “Everyone was very angry. They did not want to work for such low compensation. “

The Pakistani joined the food delivery platform during the height of the pandemic in 2020 when its trading business closed with the city’s borders.

He barely took leave each week, and he could earn up to 30,000 Hong Kong dollars ($ 3,850) a month to support his family of four. However, as restaurants reopened and demand for food delivery declined, the company slashed courier revenue by gradually reducing their pay-per-order.

By October, it was difficult for Ahmad to earn as much as 25,000 Hong Kong dollars ($ 3,209) a month, one-fifth of which went to the maintenance of his motorcycle.

Shortly after Foodpanda announced the salary cut, several hundred members of the fleet flocked to a Telegram group first set up by couriers to discuss technical issues in the company’s application.

“People have come like flies,” Ahmad recalls, fueled by growing grievances over payment, arbitrary account suspension and unreasonable penalties, among others.

“We are people, not dogs,” read the signs workers attached to their motorcycles and bicycles during the ensuing strike on November 13-14, which successfully forced Foodpanda to the negotiating table, where its drivers on Thursday offered a more generous compensation package. agreed.

The plight of concert workers is not unique to Hong Kong, but those in the global financial center are now treading a particularly fine line.

In one of the most unequal cities on earth, workers are against not only their companies under laws that favor employers notoriously over employees, but also a government that is increasingly intolerant of any form of organization and differences.

The pro-democracy Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions voted last month to dissolve, citing political pressure following the adoption of a comprehensive national security law [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Last month, the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU), the city’s largest independent trade union coalition, announced its decision to dissolve, joining a long list of civic organizations that have succumbed to pressure from a comprehensive national security law that instituted by Beijing after mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

The CTU’s founder and other trade union leaders are behind bars for their role in the protests or alleged violations of the National Security Act, which wiped out virtually all political opposition and silenced pro-democracy organizations and media in the former British colony. Beijing and the Hong Kong government have praised the security law for restoring peace and stability in the city after months of often violent protests.

Without the umbrella group, unions are left as “a snail without its shell”, as one former member put it.

The changed political atmosphere was also felt among workers organizing on the ground.

While Foodpanda couriers’ representatives negotiated with the company on Wednesday, dozens of riders who had gathered outside were warned by police against participating in an unauthorized event and threatened with fines for violating rules for social distancing.

The CTU’s dissolution was inevitable after a relatively free political system that ensured plurality disappeared overnight in the decades following the city’s 1997 transfer to Chinese sovereignty, said executive member Denny To, who hails from the umbrella group’s former office in the Mong Kok District spoke, said.

“The road ahead is something we have to figure out on our own,” To said. “The work of a trade union is long and slow. Whether it is sustainable after decentralization remains a question. “

Hong Kong has some of the most serious wealth inequality on the planet [File: Chan Long Hei]

In 2017, To, who is also the head of the Cleaning Industry Service Workers Union, led cleaners at a public housing estate on a 10-day strike that led to the recovery of severance payments and a salary increase – a rare victory for grassroots workers.

His team worked tirelessly behind the scenes, raising money for workers during their strike, garnering support from residents and liaising with the media.

Their triumph unleashed a spate of labor actions over public housing estates and pressured the Hong Kong government to amend the law in 2019. A new clause requires contractors to pay their employees an end-of-contract gratuity.

But when the cleaners’ contract came to an end last month, they complained that their employer was pulling out an old trick: intimidating workers to quit and thus giving up their severance pay. Some cleaners said they were fooled into signing additional contracts denying their right to the gratuity, while a handful who refused said they were threatened with wage cuts and other fines.

In today’s political environment, a repeat of To’s campaign on behalf of the cleaners is hard to imagine. The CTU is no longer there to offer the same support, while their allies in public office have been purged from the political system. Yeung Yuk, a district councilor associated with the cleaners, was among more than 200 opposition councilors who resigned under pressure in July.

“Grassroots defenders may not have a sharp political insight, but they are not clueless,” To said. “They realize that those on their side are disintegrating and it takes a huge toll on their confidence to speak out.”

To said he feared it would become difficult to strengthen workers’ voices in Hong Kong, where lawyers say labor protection is already lax and poorly enforced.

“Labor protection has always been weak in Hong Kong. “Without our vote, the government can only actively improve policy on its own when pigs fly,” he said.

Ho Hung Hing, leader of the Catering and Hotel Industries Employees General Union, a former subsidiary of the CTU, said the government had done little to maintain standards in the gig economy.

“Even without the CTU, our network will not disappear and we will continue to organize,” Ho said, “but without any representative in the parliamentary system, our advocacy can never reach the Legislative Council.”

Silver edging

However, there is a silver lining, as the case of Foodpanda couriers shows. Although the company did not increase its fee per order, citing its global strategy, it agreed to suspend the rate cut until June next year, pay bonuses during peak hours and offer other forms of compensation.

Pedros Dias, Foodpanda’s chief operating officer in Hong Kong, spoke to the media after the agreement and attributed the dispute to “miscommunication” with the navy, although many riders complained that they had few ways to make themselves heard.

Ho, who represented the Foodpanda riders during the negotiations, said the workers’ united stance was the key to their success, and made a powerful statement that could not be ignored.

Although many of the progressive unions formed during the 2019 protests have since disbanded under political repression, Ho acknowledges the social movement for inspiring a new political awakening and encouraging civic participation.

“A city-wide strike may still be out of reach, but people have realized that by striking, they are participating in an industrial action that could affect the politics and economy of the city,” Ho said.

“Workers have begun to understand that they have to speak when they see something wrong. The vessel that holds unions together may be gone, but people are still alive and doing what they can in each of their own industries. ”

As for Ahmad, he is back on his motorcycle. He was not entirely happy with the outcome of the strike and admitted he had to compromise. But he now delivers food knowing that couriers can use their collective power to demand change.

“This is for our home, our family and our survival in Hong Kong,” he said.

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