Empowered Workers: A Threat to the Fragile Fort of the Chinese Communist Party

Author: Afrah Abdul Gafoor is a 3rd-year student from the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi. 

This article delves into the arrests of prominent individuals associated with the now-defunct Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and their potential implications. It sheds light on the difficulties confronted by labor unions in both Hong Kong and mainland China, underscoring the diminishing rights of workers and the repercussions for those involved in the global supply chain. The decline of labor unions in Hong Kong not only hampers labor rights and democratic principles throughout Asia but also highlights the Chinese Communist Party’s tightening control over labor rights organizations, hindering the ability to address workers’ concerns effectively.

Trade unions have played a significant historical role in facilitating collective bargaining and resolving labour disputes, leading to the attainment of various rights and a more customized alignment of government regulations with specific economic activities and localities.

In Hong Kong, the Employment Ordinance (EO) (Chapter 57 of the Laws of Hong Kong) ensures adequate safeguards against anti-union discrimination. It explicitly grants employees the right to join or form a trade union, participate in union activities, and associate with others for union formation purposes. Employers are prohibited from obstructing or discouraging employees from exercising these rights, and any violations may result in criminal penalties. The EO serves as a critical legal framework in Hong Kong to protect workers’ rights and foster a conducive environment for trade unions to operate effectively. Contrary to the aforementioned, the current situation in Hong Kong paints a starkingly different picture.

The article essentially aims to highlight the complexities and challenges faced by the labour movement in Hong Kong. Despite enjoying relatively more freedom compared to mainland China, the labour unions in Hong Kong have encountered difficulties and are now experiencing a decline. The article underscores the significance of upholding legal protections and supporting trade unions in Hong Kong to safeguard workers’ rights and promote fairness. By drawing parallels with the situation in mainland China, it emphasizes the need to shed light on labour challenges in the region, which have far-reaching implications for workers in the global supply chain dependent on Chinese goods. Ultimately, the article seeks to advocate for the preservation of workers’ rights and the vital role labour unions play in advocating for democracy and workers’ welfare across Asia.


An attempt of intimidation to criminalise the figureheads of the now disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). That could be a fitting description for the recent arrests of Joe Wong, former vice-chair Leo Tang, ex-treasurer Chung Chung-fai, and former general secretary Lee Cheuk-yan who is still behind bars for his apparent ‘atrocities’.  The situation at hand is an enigma of sorts. For years, the populace considered the actions of labour unionists to be ‘radicalised’ in its approach as they lead organized strikes and camped within their companies demanding employee-worker negotiations.  The Chinese Communist Party (‘CCP’) uses prior union involvement as precedent as a second- rate justification for the current persecutions which defies ILO’s principle of Freedom of Association and Convention 87, which Hong Kong has ratified.           

In a city notorious for its hyper capitalism, empowered workers were a rarity and fighting for those very rights was a Herculean task in itself, but at present it’s point blank precarious. The Chinese government is aware of the strengths of community activism and undoubtedly sees the developments in Hong Kong as worrisome to their power. Far from its much humble beginnings, the Chinese Communist Party is pervaded with billionaires and the elite class whose family fortunes are interlaced with the party’s fate. They understand that empowered workers are incompatible with their political and corporate models, much like the capitalist highbrows they carefully selected to administer the city. This was further solidified by the establishment of the barbaric National Security Law on Hong Kong, shackling the city in the clasps of widespread fear. Labour unions became targeted as a tumour to be removed from the society, or rather portrayed so in the nuance of an authoritarian fashion. The collapse of the unions in Hong Kong leaves a dejected mark in the Asian region as a whole. They were testimony to the intersecting networks of labour unions and organizations that supported democracy and the rights of workers throughout Asia.

A setback is also created in the reign of the workers in the global supply chain who is heavily reliant on Chinese goods due to the onslaught of labour unions in China. Despite China’s formal espouse of Marxism, the much-vaunted bourgeoisie that the CCP is intended to represent – workers, do not enjoy strong safeguards. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is the sole recognised union in China (ACFTU). But it only equates as an extension of the Communist Party and not as an independent bod.  The contentious issue is that ACFTU leaders in certain corporate branches are appointed by government officials rather than imposing an electoral system of choosing their representatives. Furthermore, independent labour organisations are outlawed, therefore there is no legitimate alternative to the ACFTU. Mao’s CCP remains to be the hindrance for workers’ rights. The sum of grassroots resentment and wrath lead the government to equate it to social instability concerted by the ‘antagonistic foreign forces’. These claims have been thrown at activists which span from LGBT rights to feminism.  This may make worker’s rights seem to be not very distinctive in its aspect, but it does not shy away from being a sardonic example. As most advocates of labour rights movement argue over the fact that it is directly inspired by the very same Marxist works that Xi Yinping is fond of eulogizing.


Observers familiar with the labour movement in mainland China can draw parallels to the current situation unfolding. Within mainland China, economic grievances are generally acknowledged as valid, as long as they do not escalate into street protests or actions that pose a threat to social stability beyond the confines of factories. While independent trade unions have never been allowed on the mainland, labour non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were tolerated to some extent until recently, as long as they limited their focus to providing social services and legal counsel without taking a prominent role in workers’ actions. However, successive waves of repression between 2015 and 2019 have effectively eradicated even that limited space.

In contrast, trade unions in Hong Kong still have a relatively greater degree of organizational freedom. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong labour movement faces its own unique challenges in adapting to this new era. Independent trade unions in Hong Kong operated under a set of rules that are now largely irrelevant, while their mainland counterparts have long navigated within a semi-legal environment, accustomed to the absence of clear rules and regulations.

Unfortunately, Article 27 of the Basic Law, which guarantees the freedom of association and the right to form and join trade unions, seems to be disregarded. Hong Kong residents should be able to exercise these rights without hindrance. Additionally, statutory protections, such as the protection from criminal prosecution and civil suits, should be afforded to trade unions and their members. It is essential to note that the existence of purposes within a trade union, registered under the Trade Unions Ordinance (TUO), that may involve restraint of trade, should not automatically render any agreement or trust void. Nor should it give rise to criminal conspiracy charges against trade union members. Furthermore, trade unions, their members, and officers should enjoy immunity from civil suits for certain actions. These legal safeguards are crucial for fostering a fair and supportive environment for trade unions to operate effectively. Upholding the rights and immunities of trade unions in Hong Kong is essential for protecting the interests and well-being of workers in the territory.

What lessons can the Hong Kong labour movement glean from the Chinese Party-State’s response to the escalating worker activism in mainland China? The state’s approach typically involves dismantling organizations and networks, as well as closely monitoring individuals. However, there have been instances where the state’s strategy exhibited a more nuanced approach. Recent research reveals that Chinese authorities have responded to worker mobilizations not only through increased repression but also through greater responsiveness. This has included advocating for more worker-friendly outcomes in mediation and arbitration processes, as well as employing measures to address workers’ interests and prevent further escalation. Given the stark differences in context, it remains uncertain whether a similar strategy will be applied in Hong Kong.


In conclusion, the decline of labour unions in Hong Kong represents more than just a complication for the region. These unions have played a crucial role within a network of labour organizations that advocate for workers’ rights and democratic values not only in China but also across Asia. As the Chinese government tightens its grip on labour rights groups within mainland China, an invaluable opportunity to shed light on the challenges faced by workers in a global supply chain like that of Hong Kong which is heavily reliant on Chinese-made goods is slipping away.






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