Women, especially working class women, have many reasons to be angry with how society is run today. Women are treated as second class labour. Their wages have stagnated over the last 10 years as company bosses have taken advantage of the economic crisis to hold down our pay. For women and men, the crisis has led to a considerable increase in work hours. This hits women especially hard, with less time and more stress to take care of children. Many women are offered no choice other than precarious jobs or work in the informal economy – their number has doubled in the last five years.
The median income for female employees is HK$8,500 in 2009, about 30% lower than their male counterparts. It is common for companies to pay lower wages to women for the same job. This is particularly true in the catering sector.
It is not surprising that the number of women living in poverty rose from 485,000 in 1996 to 635,000 in 2008. Hong Kong has the most extreme wealth gap of any developed economy, and poverty is rising fastest among women. Women are the biggest losers from the pro-rich and anti-welfare policies of Donald Tsang and his tycoon supporters.
Discrimination against married women in the labour market has got even worse since the economic crisis. Every year, half of the 300 sex discrimination complaints received by the Commission for Equality are pregnancy-related. Often the discrimination is concealed – making a pregnant woman work without air conditioning and using other forms of pressure and harassment.
2010 saw an important breakthrough with the first ever minimum wage law in Hong Kong. It came after more than ten years of delays, with big pressure building up on the government and employers. But much remains to be done. The minimum wage level, at HK$28 an hour, is still too low. And the new law is discriminatory against migrants, disabled people and students. Bosses are also devising ways to limit the impact of the new law and cut costs – increasing numbers of part-time staff and pressing workers to become ’self-employed’.
Unions in Hong Kong must back up their talk about higher wages and shorter working hours with action and a readiness for real struggle. We want a fair and fully inclusive minimum wage, and the right to collective bargaining for all workers. This is linked to the need to turn the unions into fighting organisations, controlled by their members, with democratic workplace branches and leaders that live on ordinary workers’ wages.