|ISS cleaning workers strike ends, but struggle continues|
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●「飛幡祐規 パリの窓から」第78回 (2021/8/5）
Cleaning Workers' Strike Ends, but the Struggle Continues
On November 30, 2001, the ISS contract with the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) ceased, bringing the 10-day strike by cleaning workers to an end. This was the first organised strike action by cleaning workers in Hong Kong in 20 years.
Although the strike has ended, the workers plan to continue their organising and protest campaigns. On the night of November 30, the workers held a protest march to the Central Government Offices to demand that the Government and the MTR, a government-owned corporation, share responsibility for ISS's exploitation of the workers.
The strike began on November 21, when more than 200 cleaning workers took industrial action to protest against the ISS (HK) management?s strategy of denying them severance pay. The striking workers were supported by the Hong Kong Buildings Management & Security Workers General Union, an affiliate of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU).
ISS (International Service Systems) is a global corporation headquartered in Denmark and is the largest cleaning contractor in the world. It employs 265,000 people in 36 countries around the world and is the tenth largest employer in Europe.
Final Offer Rejected
Before the final day of the strike, ISS management made what they claimed to be a "reasonable" offer. On November 28, ISS Managing Director for International, Overseas, Jan Vistisen, flew in from Denmark for negotiations. A lump sum payment of HK$500,000 (US$64,100) was put forward by the management as their final offer. This amounted to only a small proportion of the HK$4 million (US$512,800) demanded by the 350 affected workers.
A lump sum of HK$500,000 meant that workers would receive less than HK$2,000 (US$256) each. The workers rejected this, as it is only one-eighth of the severance pay they are entitled to.
When this offer was made the management ruled out any possibility of strike pay. In reality, the workers had lost 10 days' pay ? on average HK$1,000 each. Therefore, the actual sum they would gain from this offer would only be HK$1,000 (US$128).
The meeting was adjourned and Sister Wong Yim-fong, as the workers' delegate participating in negotiations, submitted the proposal to a general meeting of the striking workers that night. The workers angrily rejected the offer, shouting, "We're not beggars! Pay us what we're owed!" The decision taken by the workers was to reject the company's offer.
The following morning at 9am, negotiations were resumed and Sister Wong Yim-fong informed the management that the offer had been voted against by the workers. The management then broke of any further negotiations and Vistisen returned to Denmark.
The underlying issue in the strike by the ISS cleaning workers in Hong Kong is their lack of trust in the company's promises and their clear demand for dismissal and severance pay rather than continued employment. At a time of economic recession and growing unemployment in Hong Kong, the workers' demand for dismissal rather than continued employment reflects the extent of their anger and frustration with the company.
This lack of trust and anger is based on the past employment practices of ISS (HK) and the recent attempt to re-assign workers prior to the strike action.
According to the workers, ISS has always used a strategy of re-assignment to far and inconvenient locations as a means of forcing employees to resign. In this way the company has forced unwanted workers to resign rather than firing them, and have avoided paying severance entitlements. Workers with up to 15 years' employment with ISS (HK) point out that they have never known any of their colleagues to retire with severance pay. In every instance they were re-assigned to an inconvenient work location and were forced to resign. To date we have documented 53 cases of deliberate re-assignment to create hardship, forcing workers' resignation. All of these cases occurred prior to the strike action initiated on November 21, 2001.
The strike action was prompted by the ISS (HK) management's attempt to use the re-assignment strategy to force all workers with more than 2 years employment to resign. When re-assignment letters were issued to the 517 workers employed on the MTR contract, none of the 352 workers with more than 2 years employment were re-assigned to locations near to their current place of work. All of them were re-assigned to districts furthest from their current work station. For example, workers working in Kowloon were re-assigned to Hong Kong Island and vice versa. After receiving the letters and discussing the re-assignments among themselves, the workers clearly understood that this was no coincidence and that the management wanted to increase their traveling time and make it difficult for them to continue. It was for this reason that the workers approached the Hong Kong Buildings Management & Security Workers General Union for assistance in fighting for their severance pay before they are forced to resign one-by-one.
It was only after the strike action began on November 21, that the ISS (HK) management sent a second re-assignment letter to the workers. In this second re-assignment, positions closer to current work locations were allocated. However, by this time the workers no longer trusted the management's long-term intentions. The workers rejected the new offer of re-assignments on the basis that ? after the strike ? they would face individual punishment and would be forced to resign.
After the strike was launched and the workers, with the support of HKCTU and the Hong Kong Buildings Management & Security Workers General Union, forced the ISS management into negotiations, the management promised that the workers' would have a "right of refusal" if they found that their new work locations were inconvenient or caused excessive difficulty. The company only made the commitment to "consider" the concerns raised by workers on an individual basis. There is no binding agreement requiring the company to recognise a workers' refusal of the new assignment. As such, it is not a right of refusal, but only the right to raise a grievance with the ISS (HK) Human Resources Manager.
Further evidence that ISS (HK) is attempting to force workers to resign through re-assignments is demonstrated by the fact that the company does not really have positions for the re-assigned workers. For example, 40 workers received letters informing them that they will be re-assigned to Western Kowloon Centre. Yet currently only 8 workers are employed there and there is no expansion of cleaning operations. Another 20 workers were told they would be re-assigned to the Mong Kok KCR Station, but the total number of cleaning workers employed there by ISS is 4 people. Although the management says that the re-assignment is for the workers' long-term benefit, the company does not have openings in the locations workers are being sent to. According to data obtained by the union, among 150 workers more than 40 workers will be sent to Western Kowloon Centre to work. But only 8 workers are employed there now. Another 20 workers have been re-assigned to the Mong Kok Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) Station, but only 4 cleaners are employed there. It appears then that the company does not really have job vacancies, and the re-assignments were made knowing that the workers would be forced to resign because of excessive travel and inappropriate hours. (We have documented a number of similar cases.) The workers argue that this proves that the ISS (HK) management does not really expect them to accept their assignments or will only expect them to stay there for a short time. Eventually the workforce will be reduced to its current level, meaning that the majority will be forced to resign. When the management finally agreed to negotiations, they said those workers currently employed at the new work locations with less than 2 years employment (and therefore not entitled to severance pay) would be dismissed. The workers strongly rejected this plan.
The company claims that additional travel expenses will be provided to those workers traveling long distances. However, the problem of past company practices and workers' mistrust resurfaces again. Workers' testimonies reveal that in the past workers were promised travel allowances, but this was stopped after the first month or second month and was never paid again. As such workers believe that any promised allowances will be temporary. The management has also imposed an arbitrary system of deducting attendance bonuses (which are included in their monthly wages) when workers take their annual leave. If a worker takes her annual leave in two different months, then her attendance bonus will be deducted twice. The prevalence of such practices explain why the workers believe that the travel allowances will not really be paid.
The issue of re-assignment is directly related to the issue of age and gender. Since the majority of workers are women with children living at home, the impact of longer traveling time, late night shifts and extended hours away from home is very significant. The company is well aware that when one to two hours is added to the time it takes to travel to and from work, especially on night shifts, and having to eat meals away from home, then the pressure of family responsibilities will force them to resign.
Background to the Strike
On November 30, 2001, the contract that ISS (HK) holds with the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation will end. As a result, 517 workers employed by ISS to clean the MTR subway stations will become redundant. According to the Hong Kong Employment Ordinance, workers employed for more than two years are entitled to severance pay. Of the 517 workers affected, 352 have been employed by ISS for more than two years and so are legally entitled to severance pay.
An exception in the Employment Ordinance allows the employer to NOT pay severance entitlements if employees are re-assigned to new positions. In the lead-up to the termination of its contract with the MTR, ISS (HK) has re-assigned 352 cleaning workers to new jobs commencing on December 1. However, ISS (HK) management has deliberately re-assigned the workers to new work locations far from their current work sites. By forcing them to commute long distances (for night shifts), workers are being put in a position of having to resign. (Since the majority of the workers are middle-aged women with families, they are under pressure to refuse the new work assignments).
The workers accused ISS (HK) of trying to force them to resign rather than dismissing them. This way the company can avoid any legal obligation to pay severance pay. After being informed of their re-assignment, the workers demanded formal dismissal and severance pay according to the law. The workers then approached the Hong Kong Buildings Management & Security Workers General Union to intervene and help them to fight for their severance pay. The total severance pay due to the workers is approximately HK$4 million (US$512,000)
At a general meeting attended by 200 workers on November 15 it was decided that a series of protest actions would be taken. After this meeting a total of 350 workers signed a petition demanding severance pay instead of re-assignment (and forced resignation). A protest and sit-in was held in the Central Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Station on the night of Sunday, November 18. ISS (HK) management was given until November 21 to respond to the workers demands, or strike action would begin.
On November 21 the company failed to respond and so the workers began their strike action, setting up a permanent picket in the Central MTR Station. (The picket continues until this day).
The importance of this severance pay for the ISS (HK) workers must be understood in the context of their extremely low wages and the absence of social welfare.
The ISS (HK) cleaning workers are paid an average monthly wage of only HK$3,000 (US$384), with some receiving as little as HK$2,800 (US$359). This is for full-time, daily shifts of 6 to 10 hours. These wages are below the average income for blue collar workers in Hong Kong, falling into the lowest income-earning group - what the Hong Kong Social Security Society classifies as ?the working poor.?
In Hong Kong low-waged employment (like the wage levels of cleaners employed by ISS) is the major cause of poverty, and not unemployment. This is a fact recognised by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights in its report on Hong Kong in May 2001. The problem of the ?working poor? is attributed to the fact that there is no minimum wage legislation in Hong Kong.
In addition to this, there is no pension and no unemployment insurance (or any other social welfare entitlements). This means that the lump sum severance payment is extremely important for low-waged workers. It is the nearest thing they will have to a pension.
"Because we are cleaners he treats us like garbage!" The Chief Executive Director Refused Negotiations
At 2:30pm on Friday, November 23, the workers held a protest at the ISS (HK) head office.
The Chief Executive Director of ISS (HK), Gregory Rooke, refused to meet directly with the workers? delegation and trade union representatives, even though Labour Department officials were present. He refused even to sit in the same room with them. Rooke said that his high management position meant he did not have to deal with workers. His attitude angered the workers? representatives who said, ?Because we?re cleaners he treats us like garbage!?
After more than three hours Rooke still had not sat down to begin negotiations and at 9pm announced he was leaving the office. He laughed at the protesting workers and walked to the front door waving goodbye. The workers? delegation blocked the doors and exits and prevented him from leaving. Rooke told the police to use the Public Order Ordinance to escort him from the building and remove the workers, but the police did not intervene. Eventually, another three hours later, well past midnight, Rooke only agreed to talk to the HKCTU Chief Executive ? but not the workers. When the ISS management finally signed a letter agreeing that negotiations could be held on Monday, November 26, the workers withdrew from the ISS (HK) office.
On its website (www.iss-group.com) ISS publicises its good employment relations and labour standards. It claims to support an ?open dialogue on equal terms between management and employees.? It also claims that: ?Our employees' freedom to organise locally and across borders is a central element of our personnel policy.? ISS is also a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact on human rights, which it signed in 1999.
The refusal of the ISS (HK) Chief Executive Director to even speak to the workers for the nine hours they were in the ISS office, and his outright rejection of any negotiations whatsoever clearly demonstrates that ISS?s claim to ?open dialogue on equal terms between management and employees? is false.
On November 26, the workers? delegates, trade union representatives and 100 workers went to ISS (HK) office for the promised negotiations at 2:30pm However, ISS had arranged for building security to prevent the workers from entering the building ? only 20 were allowed inside. The delegation included HKCTU General Secretary, Lee Cheuk Yan and HKCTU Chief Executive, Elizabeth Tang. The other workers remained outside the building surrounded by security guards and police.
After 5 hours of talks the ISS management still refused to consider the workers? demands. There was no result from these talks. The workers? delegation remains inside the lobby of the building and the workers are holding a vigil outside.
ISS (HK)'s Claims
Despite the claim by the ISS (HK) Human Resources manager that the re-assignment of workers is not intended to force workers to resign, only those workers entitled to severance pay were reassigned to new locations in far way areas.
The management claimed that all of he workers affected by the end of the MTR contract will continue to have jobs. Yet only the 352 workers legally entitled to severance pay were reassigned. The other 165 workers not entitled to severance pay (employed for less than 2 years) were not re-assigned and they do not know what will happen to them after November 30.
The company claims that if it agrees with the union's demands and pays the workers severance pay, then it will raise the company's operating costs. These costs will be passed on to the company?s clients. The ISS (HK) Chief Executive Director, Gregory Rooke, added that the company does not include the cost of compensation (such as severance pay) for the workers in its annual operating budget.
The union responded that the company should have included annual compensation in its projected operating costs, including retirement costs. More importantly, claims that no measures were taken to consider severance pay for any of its 7000 workers suggest that the company cannot be "socially responsible" as it claims to be.
The notion of having to shift costs to its clients is also questionable. Under its contract with the MTR, the MTR pays on average HK$8,000 for each worker employed to clean, but ISS (HK) only pays the workers HK$3,000. There is clearly enough of a margin here to cover severance pay and other compensation.
The Workers' Demands
ISS claims that it is the union which is demanding that the workers are dismissed. Yet the management knows that 350 workers signed a petition demanding that they be formally dismissed and paid their full entitlement to severance pay. The management's failure to respond to the petition led to the strike action.
Furthermore, throughout this dispute the workers have represented themselves and have voted on key decisions. On November 5, 2001, more than 200 workers elected 10 workers as their representative committee and mandated that committee to negotiate on their behalf. While these 200 workers became members of the Hong Kong Buildings Management & Security Workers General Union, they maintained their own committee and their own representation. This 10-person committee put major decisions to a vote at general meetings. Therefore, the demands expressed were those of the workers themselves and not the HKCTU or its affiliate, the Hong Kong Buildings Management & Security Workers General Union.
In fact, on November 23, HKCTU intervened in negotiations only after the the Chief Executive Director of ISS (HK), Gregory Rooke, refused to meet directly with the 10-person representative committee. Even though Labour Department officials were present for tripartite negotiations, he refused even to sit in the same room with the workers' representatives. Rooke said that his high management position meant he did not have to deal with workers. His attitude angered the workers? representatives who said, ?Because we?re cleaners he treats us like garbage!?
After more than three hours Rooke still had not sat down to begin negotiations and at 9pm announced he was leaving the office. He laughed at the protesting workers and walked to the front door waving goodbye. The workers then blocked the doors and exits and prevented him from leaving. Eventually, another three hours later, well past midnight, Rooke only agreed to talk to the HKCTU Chief Executive ? but not to any member of the workers' committee.
Similarly, at negotiations held on November 28, it was at the request of the ISS management ? including ISS Managing Director for International, Overseas, Jan Vistisen, that only one workers' representative be present. The management refused to meet with the full 10-person committee elected by the workers.
As such, the 10-person committee elected one of the cleaning workers and a member of the committee, Sister Wong Yim-fong, to represent them in the negotiations. The views expressed, and the rejection of the company's final offer, were clearly stated by Sister Wong Yim-fong on behalf of the striking workers.
The Struggle Continues
Although the strike has ended, HKCTU and the the Hong Kong Buildings Management & Security Workers General Union is preparing to file a legal case in court on behalf of the workers.
Also, a workers' delegation led by HKCTU General Secretary, Lee Cheuk-yan, will go to Denmark to protest against the actions of ISS.
HKCTU and the Hong Kong Buildings Management & Security Workers General Union has started a solidarity fund-raising campaign for those workers who are facing financial hardship due to the strike. Donations to the fund may be made to:
Bank: Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC)
For more information please contact:
Created byStaff. Created on 2001-12-04 00:39:41 / Last modified on 2005-09-06 07:10:59 Copyright: Default