Hong Kong protests birthed a new hospital worker union. The coronavirus has prompted its first strike

February 4, 2020, 12:25 PM UTC

Thousands of public sector healthcare workers in Hong Kong on Tuesday went on strike for the second day in a row to demand immediate closure of the city’s border with mainland China to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) said on Tuesday evening that more than 7,000 union members—around 10% of public hospital workers—joined in the second day of the strike, an increase from the previous day, when around 2,700 workers participated.

Hong Kong confirmed its first coronavirus-related death on Tuesday morning. It is the second death to occur outside of mainland China, where the outbreak originated. The coronavirus has infected 17 people in Hong Kong, including the 39-year-old man who died.

On Tuesday evening, the HAEA said it will continue the strike into a third day, and reiterated its main demand.

“The closing of the border must be immediately implemented and there is absolutely no room for negotiation,” the union said in a statement.

The union also repeated its demand to meet with the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

“If Carrie Lam has any intention to truly tackle the infection spreading in Hong Kong, she must have a public meeting with the HAEA tomorrow at 10 a.m.,” the HAEA said.

The workers are part of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), an 18,000-member union of public hospital system employees formed in December in the midst of the anti-government protests.

On Monday evening, Lam, who’s so far refused to meet with the union, appeared to give the workers at least a partial concession. She announced that four border crossings between Hong Kong and mainland China would close, leaving just three open: Hong Kong International Airport, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, and Shenzhen Bay Port.

HONG KONG, CHINA - FEBRUARY 03: Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference at the Central Government Complex on February 3, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. The government has announced they will shut down all but two of the border crossing stations with mainland China. Hong Kong has 15 confirmed cases of Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), with over 17000 confirmed cases around the world, the virus has so far claimed over 300 lives.(Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam speaks at the Central Government Complex on Feb. 3, 2020 in Hong Kong. The government announced they will shut down all but two of the border crossing stations with mainland China.
Anthony Kwan—Getty Images

Lam also announced on Tuesday morning that government officials were barred from wearing surgical marks in order to save supplies for medical staff. One of the hospital union’s demands is that the government provide adequate face masks, which are in short supply in Hong Kong. The move was a reversal, since officials—including Lam herself—have worn masks in press briefings in the last few weeks.

At the same time, Lam did not concede to a total border shutdown nor to the demand that workers not face disciplinary action for striking, two of the union’s five demands. A subsequent dialogue between the HAEA members and the Hospital Authority, the organization that manages all the public hospitals in Hong Kong, broke down, and union members voted to continue striking. HAEA’s three other demands relate to medical preparedness—more face masks to curb the shortage, sufficient isolation wards for coronavirus patients, and support and protective gear for staff working in the wards.

The first day of the strike, which on Monday included 300 doctors and 900 nurses, “seriously delayed” services in hospitals, according to the Hospital Authority.

The novel coronavirus has infected almost 21,000 people worldwide and caused 427 deaths as of Tuesday.

Another five demands

The hospital workers’ union’s five demands echo the message of the broader political protest movement that calls for “five demands, not one less”—an unsurprising tribute, since the union emerged from the antigovernment demonstrations that gripped the city last year.

The protests, sparked in June 2019 by a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed for extradition to mainland China, developed into a broad movement calling for democratic reforms in Hong Kong, and energized workers across numerous sectors in a city known more for its friendliness to finance, free trade, and open markets than for politically-charged organized labor movements.

During the second half of 2018, Hong Kong’s labor department received 10 applications to form new trade unions. During the same period in 2019, when the protests were in full swing, the department received 135 applications, including from the HAEA.

Staff members of Hong Kong's Hospital Authority, which employs 75,000 people citywide, queue up to sign a letter of petition in support of a planned strike by hospital workers calling for the full closure of border crossings from mainland China, near the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Hong Kong on February 4, 2020. - Hong Kong on February 4 become the second place outside of the Chinese mainland to report the death of a patient being treated for a new coronavirus that has so far claimed more than 400 lives. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP) (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)
Staff members of Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority, which employs 75,000 people citywide, queue up to sign a letter of petition in support of a planned strike by hospital workers, near the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Hong Kong on Feb. 4, 2020.
ANTHONY WALLACE—AFP via Getty Images

The massive uptick in trade union registrations, as well as the landslide victory of pro-protest candidates in local elections in November, reflected the movement’s growth beyond street protests to incorporate labor organizing and electoral politics.

“This is an atypical strike in the recent history of Hong Kong. Strike rate has been extremely low since the 1990s,” said Chris Chan, an associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who researches labor and social movements in Hong Kong.

Chan said the HAEA has support from “many other trade unions,” including the bus driver unions and the Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Flight Attendants Association.

Dragon Airlines is the budget carrier of Hong Kong’s flagship airline, Cathay Pacific. Unions representing flight attendants from both carriers warned they would consider strike action if the airlines did not suspend flights to mainland China over coronavirus fears.

Cathay Pacific said on Tuesday it was cutting 90% of its mainland China capacity for two months, citing a drop in passenger demand because of the outbreak.

Refocused attention

The coronavirus is highly infectious and spreads through cough and sneeze droplets in the air, so crowded gatherings and marches pose an obvious public health risk.

The sudden outbreak had the potential to derail the Hong Kong protest movement and also presented an opportunity for Lam and the government to “assert leadership and demonstrate competence,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Instead, the government’s initial response to the outbreak was critiziced for being slow and inadequate, even by pro-establishment politicians, and the outbreak refocused protesters’ attention.

On Telegram, the encrypted messaging app popular with Hong Kong protestors, the public channels devoted to sharing protest updates are now occupied with news about the coronavirus from an anti-government perspective—from the latest infection rates and death tolls to comics criticizing the government handling of the epidemic and photographs of the striking medical workers.

A poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) found that 11% of Hong Kong people were satisfied with the government response to the outbreak.

People rallied in Hong Kong’s Central district on Monday and Tuesday in solidarity with the medical union’s demand for a full border closure.

According to the PORI poll, 80% of Hong Kong people support barring mainland China residents from entry to Hong Kong, and 61% of people support the medical workers’ strike.

Tsang said the level of public support for a medical strike “in the midst of a public health crisis […] reveals how much disaffection there remains in Hong Kong” towards the government.

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