Early 2018 Victory: Cleaning Workers Won Their Struggle
We come to thump at the door
Not to beg you for something
We come to thump at the door
In order to remind you
“Bang, Bang, Bang”
We can move away the rubbish
And also the boss of ‘Man Shun’”
— Hoi Lai Estate cleaning workers’ poem
After 10 days went on strike, the Hoi Lai Estate cleaning workers finally win their fight. Man Shun, the company which employed the workers, agreed to fulfil its obligation for severance pay. With the support of the community and various organizations, the cleaning workers will get HKD 1,200 severance pay for each year they were employed, according to local media InMedia.
The dispute between the workers and the employer began when company’s contract with Hong Kong Housing Department over Cheung Sha Wan’s Hoi Lai Estate ended last year. As the contract ended, the workers were tricked by the company to sign voluntary resignation in October 2017 without any compensation.
Despite long tenures, the company denied the obligation to pay the workers their right to severance pay. Rather, Man Shun offered the workers to be re-employed by Hong Kong Commercial Cleaning—which appears has a close ownership connection—regardless of the previous tenure with only HKD 11 pay rise.
The company denial of workers’ right has made the cleaning workers furious. Refuse to be disrespected, the workers decided to determine their own fate. They went on strike and vowed to continue until they win their right.
During the strike on 4 January, the workers alleged that the authority should take responsibility for resolving the problem given the Housing Department has funded the contractor. “Housing authority should take responsibility. We demand the housing authority to come and meet us,” said one of the protesters who declined to be identified.
Most of the dozens cleaning workers who went on strike are old-aged women workers with 7-9 years tenures. One of the interviewed workers said that her monthly salary is only HKD 8,600. “My earning is not sufficient to have a decent living.”
Cleaning tasks are often underestimated, although the routines are heavy tasks, especially for the old-aged women workers. Some of the workers’ routines are cleaning the toilet, the floor, and the ceiling. The company provides less working tools, as the workers need to mix the limited cleaning liquid with water or even search for cleaners in the trash bin.
Every single day, the cleaning workers have to collect and dump trash from 400 flats in 40 floors estate. This task has to be finished within working hours. Otherwise, the workers have to do the unpaid overtime.
Another task is handling the large garbage such furniture and home appliances—which is done only by 80 years old workers. The workers also have to manage the bulk trash that vulnerable to accidents.
Such domestic task which is done by the cleaning workers—also domestic workers elsewhere—is one of the major issues under capitalism. Taking care of the households, which construct as the main role of women in the patriarchal biased society, are often underpaid—or rather, unpaid—and regarded as unskilled labor.
This view is problematic given the domestic task serves a critical role in the society: that is the social reproduction of labor. In this sense, the domestic tasks made it possible for the working class to maintain their labor power and to recover from fatigue. Hence, the domestic task is an integral part of the economic development—and also subject to capitalist surplus value appropriation.
The invisibility of the cleaning workers become one of the factors of the wide support. “We should appreciate the cleaning workers. The community will be dirty without being cared by the cleaning workers,” said Lau Siu-Lai, one of the disqualified legislator during her solidarity speech in the celebration of workers’ victory at the Hoi Lai Estate, on Saturday (06/01).
With the workers’ determination and wide support, the company finally gave up. From the initial HKD 200 severance offer—which obviously was refused—the company will pay HKD 1,200 severance for each one year of service. The cleaning workers also will also receive a raise of HKD 172 salary which was initially offered only HKD 11.
Supporters from various local organizations and countries—Poland, Indonesia and Philippine—came to congratulate the workers over the victory. Since in the very beginning, various organization—trade unions, local community, political party, sympathizer, student groups and NGOs—helped the workers to organize the resistance.
Experiencing their own cases, the cleaning workers found themselves empowered. One of the workers delivered her testimony, said that ‘I feel empowered. I am now encouraged to be brave.” The supporters followed with chanting joyfully.
Through their experience, the cleaning workers also learned about the importance of solidarity. ‘I was amazed when I saw many people contributed to the fundraising. Also when I joined New Year’s Day pro-democracy protest, I was touched that many people sympathy on our struggle,” said another worker during her testimony.
Denny To reminded the workers and all of the supporters that there is still a long struggle for the better living condition of working class. “The end of the strike is the start of the movement for the workers who are still being exploited,” said Denny To who is one of the organizers of Cleaning Service Industry Workers Union.
Contributor: Rizal Assalam
Editor: Muh. Ridha
*Credit to Fifi (Chinese University of Hong Kong Grassroots Concern Group), Rena Lau (Globalization Monitor) and Fei (Workers’ News) who provided the valuable information