Evolution of Labour Legislation in Asia

title l contents l contributors l foreword l introduction l

chapter 1 l 2 l 3 l 4 l 5 l 6 l 7 l 8 l 9 l conclusion l


Chapter 9








Pre- Trade Union Organisations

   In Hong Kong, as in other areas predominantly populated by the Chinese, there were associations which sprung up that included the working masses in their membership. Wherever the Chinese settled overseas they established these forms of associations, namely: the guilds and secret societies.1 The guilds were intended not primarily to serve the interests of the workers as a class, but to promote the craft and guard its secrets.

   As the society gradually shifted from the handicraft stage to industralisation, the guild gradually disintegrated. New forms of organisation became necessary. Some guilds were reorganised and where labour was strong, the reorganised guilds became authentic unions; where labour was weak, “the union became a kind of company union”.


Government Policy from 1 845-1920 

The first ordinance enacted by the government regulating societies and guilds in Hong Kong was Ordinance of 1845.2 This ordinance provided a penalty for triad membership of up to three years imprisonment, branding on the left cheek and deportation from the colony.

In 1886, a riot broke out in the Western District of Hong Kong arising from extortions practised in the coolie trade. The boarding house where the coolie stayed prior to shipment overseas were controlled by the triad elements. The owners not only overcharged the coolies for accomodation and passage, but also outriglitly extorted money from them. Some proprietors refused to cooperate and were attacked by the triad elements.3

In 1911, the year of the establishment of the Chinese Republic by Sun Yat Sen, a Societies Ordinance was enacted for the purpose of controlling the political activities of certain associations. The government’s policy was to prevent certain groups to use Hong Kong as a base of operation against the Mainland torn by revolution. Under this regulation all societies were required to register except those which were expressly exempted. Registration may be refused to applicant societies if their purposes were incompatible with the peace or good order of the colony, or that their action would excite tumult and disorder in China.

Another Societies Ordinance this time enacted in 1920 reversed the policy of registration. The societies were no longer required to register and certain societies were declared unlawful, namely: (1) the triad society, (2) all societies which use a triad ritual, (3) all societies which have among their objects unlawful purposes or purposes incompatible with the peace and good order of the colony.


Early Beginnings of Trade Unions, 1920-1941

It was during the period which might be called the colonial government’s policy of “noncompulsory registration” of societies that genuine trade unions began to emerge.

The first recorded example of the use of the strike as a collective weapon by workers in Hong Kong was in 1920. The strike was called by the Hong Kong Mechanics Union for a wage increase against their employer. The Union, before the strike, formed part of the Kwangtung’s Mechanics Association founded in Canton in 1909. The latter association included employers and workers, but in 1918, the employer group left the Association and formed their own Machine Trade Mutual Benefit Guild. In the strike 9,000 workers in Hong Kong and Canton participated. Wage increases from 20% to 30% were won.4 The second strike in Hong Kong which was more significant than the first occurred in January 1922 among the Hong Kong seamen. The strike was caused by resentment to the wage increase granted to British and European seamen, but not to Chinese seamen. The strike spread to many other trades. The port of Hong Kong was virtually at a standstill before settlement was reached which gave the Chinese seamen a substantial increase in wages. Immediately following the strike, the Governor rescinded his order declaring the union illegal.

The first national labour conference organised by the nationalists was held in Canton shortly after the seamen’s strike in 1922. This conference was attended by trade unionists from Hong Kong. Dr. Sun Yat Sen decided to seek the assistance of the communists in developing the trade unions and in 1923, with the arrival of a Russian specialist, M. Borodin, the trade unions were strengthened. Even membership of the unions in Hong Kong increased considerably although the system of labour-management relations was still at its rudimentary stage of development.

In 1925, a major disturbance was engineered by the left-wing leaders of the Kuomintang. Demonstrations were staged against the foreign powers enjoying privileged status in China. The strike eventually collapsed, but a boycott of British goods and shipping was continued until October 1926.

An aftermath of this strike was the enactment of the first ordinance by the Hong Kong government specifically dealing with trade unions. This was the Illegal Strikes and Lockouts Ordinance of 1927 which declared a strike illegal if its object was something other than the furtherance of the legitimate trade dispute or if it was designed to coerce the government by inflicting hardship on the community. It prohibited persons employed with the Crown or in essential public services to strike. Regarding union funds, the ordinance forbade its use for political purposes either inside or outside the colony. An ordinance of similar import is still in force in the colony up to the present time. Both the General Labour Union and the Chinese Seamen’s Union were declared illegal by the government.


Other Early Labour Laws and Administrative Bodies

    Concern over labour conditions continued to be expressed over the next few years, especially as all these communications from the Colonial Office had little apparent effect. In Hong Kong, in consonance with the colonial policy of establishing a machinery for labour administration, a labour office was first established in 1938 as a sub-department of the Secretariat for Chinese Affairs.

   The Colonial government in Hong Kong also took steps for the drafting of the bill for the regulation of trade unions and for the establishment of a machinery for the settlement of trade disputes. However, war intervened before any ordinance could be promulgated. The plan finally took shape in 1948 upon the passage of Ordinance No.8 entitled “An Ordinance to Regulate Trade Unions and Trade Disputes”. This was later amended in 1961 upon the passage of Trade Union Registration Ordinance leaving only the provision relating to arbitration in force in the 1948 ordinance.5

The organisation and administration of trade unions for the past decades have to be viewed in the light of the provisions of the two ordinances which together with a third enactment governing illegal strikes and lockouts constitute the law on labour relations in Hong Kong.


A Brief Review of Labour Laws

After World War II, the government laid down some fundamental labour laws after a series of economic strikes brought about by the high cost of living. With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the unions split into two rival factions: (1) the pro-Peking Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions and (2) the pro-Taiwan Hong Kong and Kowloon Trades Union Council. From then on, unionism was confined to ideological and political struggles.6

This was also the time of rapid industrialisation as a result of the influx of capital and migrant labour into Hong Kong.

Rapid economic growth, however, did not mean improved working conditions of workers. Industrial disputes arose and exploded into riots in 1967. The Leftists played a prominent role in these mass actions and the police reacted with strong violence.

The government strengthened its force to suppress the radical union elements. Many activists were summarily dismissed. At the same time, the government launched a program of labour reform to appease the restless working class.

During the seventies, the civil service caught the headlines when it participated actively in mass actions over pay hikes and improved working conditions. As the Leftists laid low, the church labour groups and young labour leaders emerged in the vanguard in the fight for labour reform.

Following are some of the labour laws in Hong Kong:

1.  Employment Ordinance (Cap. 57)

This originated from the Employers and Servants Ordinance of 1902 and was introduced in 1968. This provided for the duration and termination of contracts, wages, employment agencies, paid maternity leave, rest day, holiday with pay, sickness allowance, protection against antiunion discrimination, working hours for women and young persons, severance payment, and long service payment.

2.  Employees’ Compensation Ordinance (Cap. 282)

This provides for payment of compensation to employees who are injured in the course of their employment, either through physical injuries or occupational diseases. It is based on the principle of the now repealed English Workmen’s Compensation Acts of 1897, 1906 and 1925, incorporating features of the Kenyan and Sri Lankan legislation.

3.  Trade Union Ordinance (Cap. 332)

Originally, it was called Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinance of 1948 and was based on the English legislation and practice. The law provides for compulsory registration and more effective control of trade unions, and declares that unions are not unlawful merely by reasons of the fact that their objectives are in restraint of trade. It provides for immunity from actions in tort and makes peaceful picketing lawful.

4.  Labour Tribunal Ordinance (Cap. 25)

It set up a labour tribunal in 1973 which deals with claims for sums of money arising from breaches of contracts of employment and from failure to comply with the provisions of the Employment Ordinance. The court provides an easily accessible, speedy, informal and inexpensive procedure for the settlement of disputes. Appeal can be submitted to the High Court on questions of law and its decision is final.

5.  Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance and Regulations (Cap.59)

Again, these laws follow closely the British models. They deal with safety, health and welfare of general and specified factories. They also deal with safety measures on quarries, blasting by abrasions, woodworking machinery, electrolytic chromium process, confined space and others.

6.  Labour Relations Ordinance (Cap. 55)

The law enables an unresolved trade dispute to go through three successive stages for settlement: ordinary conciliation, special conciliation, and the taking by the Governor-in-Council of one of the following measures submission of the dispute to voluntary arbitration, to establish a Board of Inquiry, or to take such other action as the circumstances warrant. However, except for the ordinary and special conciliation, the ordinance has never been utilized to resolve trade disputes. Basically, some parts of this ordinance is a copy of the repealed Industrial Relations Act in United Kingdom, e.g. the provision for cooling-off period.


Preliminary Observations About Labour Legislation in Hong Kong

    1.  It is evident that in Hong Kong, labour laws are only a reaction or a counter-measure to the labour movement. There is reason for the unionists’ belief that the laws, instead of encouraging trade union activities, only obstruct such movement. The law does not compel the employers to recognise a union even if the union represents 100% of the membership.

   2. Hong Kong has been praised for its industrial peace and shorter working days lost due to work stoppages. This is, however, a result of the weakness of the working class movement rather than of good labour relations. Though the Trade Union Ordinance recognises the workers’ right to peaceful picketing, the workers’ action can easily fall under the Public Order Ordinance which restricts unlawful assemblies or processions. In addition, the management can easily obtain an injunction from the Supreme Court to evict sit-in workers or to prevent them from engaging in other concerted actions. Thus, the right to strike and other industrial mass actions are endangered.

3. Only in three situations is the workers’ employment protected against discrimination, that is: a) during his inability to work due to occupational accident; b) during maternity leave periods; and 3) while the worker is carrying out union activities.

Workers, however, can still be dismissed upon other “justifiable” causes. Also, in Hong Kong, a worker does not enjoy comprehensive social insurance protection. He has to rely on his own effort when he is unemployed, during his prolonged sickness, or retirement. The non-contributory social security measures are always too late or too little to relieve the needy from hardship.

4. The Labour Department is responsible for the enforcement of labour law and the maintenance of industrial peace. The Department has been labeled by the workers as “management’s department” because it is inutile and can only channel individual complaints to the labour tribunal for jurisdiction. The Labour Department is also a ‘toothless tiger’ because it also lacks the staff for factory inspection resulting in the non-implementation of safety and welfare regulations. It has only created the illusion among the workers that the government, instead of the unions themselves, is the source of assistance.



As Hong Kong enters the 1980’s, the unions are showing signs of new activi­ties. The unions are joining hands with pressure groups on various social issues, from freezing the public utilities fees to the Japanese revision of history books, and many other issues. While some achievements have been made by the working class movement, management is likewise offering resistance. The recent debate on the issue of prolonging sick leave illustrates the united front being put up by management.

At the time of this writing, discussion on the Basic Law (the future Constitution of Hong Kong after 1997) created a great concern among the general public. But the working class movement has more urgent issues to deal with. The split between the two camps in the labour movement has to be resolved. The pro-Taiwan unions (TUC) wants to maintain the status quo which is under British administration. The pro-Peking group (FTU) prefers a peaceful transfer to Chinese sovereignty with administration by “Hong Kong people”. The neutral unions and church-labour groups stress the importance of remaining inde­pendent, and to carry on the struggle without unnecessary administrative restriction. However, all of these groups may come to a consensus that Hong Kong is their home, that the basic rights of labour should be upheld no matter what happens to the political future of Hong Kong.




(HK ceded to British)

Repressive laws      

The preservation of good order and cleanliness within the colony


Entrepot 1844 General Strike

1858,1884 National Strike


(Ching Dynasty)

1845 Ordinance aiming to curb triad and other "secret societies"

Service and Engineering British Hongs, Chinese compradors


1895 Immigrants  
1884 Peace Preservation Ordinance 1816 General Chamber

        of Commerce

Underground union movement


1887 Triad and unlawful Societies Ordinance

1900 Chinese General

        Chamber of       


1911-29 all unions

            unlawful unless




Republic of China, Civil war between warlords
1902 Employers and Servants Ordinance   Centre for labour organization in S. China

1913 repressive

        measures by

        warlords against

        unions, strikes


1911 Societies Ordinance      
1920 New Societies ordinance   1919 Food riots,

        economic stirikes  

        because of

        political issues

1919 May Fourth



1921 Formation of CCP



Industrial Employment of Children Ordinance


  1920 Mechanics strike All China Labour Congress 1922

Female Domestic Servants Ordinance



1922 Chinese

        Seamen's strike

1925 May 30 movement
1927 Factories (Accidents) Ordinance, Illegal Strike & Lock-outs Ordinance  

25-26 Canton HK Strike

      -Boycott. Formation

      Hong Kong General 

      Labour Union

      in Canton


Nothern expedition by Dr Sun Yat Sen


1927 Kuomintang 




1929 Industrial Employment of Women, Young Person and Children Ordinance




Early industrialization


Unions proclaimed unlawful  

Labour Advisory Board


1932 Employment of Young Person and Children at Sea

Factories and Workshop Ordinance

Minimum Wage Ordinance

Butters' Report, Government tries to encourage "responsible unions"




1934 Chinese





Anti-Communist Squad

Communists leader jailed and/or deported

Inflow of immigrants

Unions turn into mutual aid clubs









1937 Sino-Japanese


1938 First Labour Officer

Trade Board Ordinance


38-41 Revival of unions

         for political &

     economic activisties


1941 Japanese

     occupation, workers

     joined guerrillas


1948 Trade Union and Trade Dispute Ordinance Inflow of capital and labour from China


1946-69 Strong 



Civil war between Kuomintong and Chinese Communist Party



Workmen's Compensation Ordinance


Investment in light industries


Labour unrest, economic strikes



1949 People's Republic

        of China


1955 FIUO-Factories and Industrial Undertakings ordinance

1959 Rapid Industrialisation, mfg. export surpassed re-export



Divided labour movement

1950 US Ban on trade

        with Red China

1958 Restriction of working hours and rest day for women

1960 Federation of HK


FTU - pro Peking union

TUC - pro Taiwan


Deportation of labour leaders


1951 Korean War, UN


1961 Limited provision for sickness pay and holidays

TU Registration Ordinance (Industrial Employment Ordinance)

1967 Joint Association

        Committee on


        yee Relations

1956 Riots Clashes

        between KMT and



1966 Riots rising cost of



1967 Disturbances,

        poor working

        relations, initiated

        by FTU


1966 Cultural



A new programme - 33 items of labour law to be implemented


  Upsurgence of young workers and service workers movement  
1968 Employment Ordinance

1969 American

        Chamber of         



1970 Maternity leave, rest day

1970 Growth of foreign




Labour Tribunal Ordinance


  1973 Teachers' Strike  
1974 Severance payment 1974-75 Recession

Joint Actions between different unions


1975 Labour Relations Ordinance Tertiary Industry Growing Recession

FTU involved in local affairs


1976 Apprentice Ordinance    

1976 Downfall of Gang

        of Four



7 days annual leave



Employees' Compensation Ordinance



1980 Reform Four


1984 End of Year Payment    

1984 Sino- British




Long Service Payment Protection of Wages on Insolvency Fund






1.     W.P. Morgan, Triad Societies in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Government Press, 1960), p. 2.

2.     Yu Chang-ho, The Trade Union Movement in China (Nanking: Preparatory Com­mittee of the Chinese Federation of Labour, 1948), p. 20.

3.      Nym Wales, The Chinese Labour Movement (New York: The John Day Company,

1945), p. 30.

4.      B.C. Roberts, Labour in the Tropical Territories of the Commonwealth (London:

G.  Bell and Sons Ltd., 1964), p. 12.

5.      Ma Chao-Chun, History of the Labor Movement in China (Taipeh: Taiwan China Cultural Service, 1955), p. 13.

6.      E. Kassalow, National Labor Movements in the Postwar World (Northwestern University Press, 1963), p. 37.





(in Chinese)


1.      Apo Leung and others, Perspectives on the Hong Kong & Chinese Labor Movement

HKCIC 1982.

2.      Apo Leung and others, General Labour Laws, HKCIC 1984.


(in English)


1.       England & Rear, Industrial Relations & Laws in Hong Kong, Oxford 1982.







title l contents l contributors l foreword l introduction l

chapter 1 l 2 l 3 l 4 l 5 l 6 l 7 l 8 l 9 l conclusion l