Hong Kong’s leader said the city’s largest bus firm had “room for improvement” in its dispute with two drivers it nearly sacked following their role in a recent strike, as the pair claimed they only learned about an appeal process for termination hours after the company told them they had been dismissed.
Commenting after returning from Beijing on Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor described “good labour relations” as “one of the keys to a harmonious society”. Lam said the government would be happy to step in to help negotiations and that the Labour Department had contacted both sides.
KMB on Tuesday made an abrupt U-turn in its decision to fire four drivers for taking part last month in an impromptu industrial action, just hours after their dismissal prompted a sit-in at one of its depots.
Management early Wednesday met for more than an hour with two of the main strike leaders, and an agreement was struck. KMB told them they would continue to receive their pay and that the company would launch a review of the dismissal decisions within 30 days.
“When they dismissed us, they didn’t tell us we were eligible for an appeal process or that there was one,” strike leader Lau Cheuk-hang said on a radio programme later Wednesday morning, calling it “hard to understand”.
“I believe they were under some pressure from the public and our fellow workers.”
Lau and his wife, Yip Wai-lam, both KMB bus captains, are co-founders of the recently formed Full-time KMB Driver Alliance, which claims to represent 1,000 full-time drivers at the company.
The two had been in the process of registering an official employee union under the department when they were dismissed. Asked whether he thought their sacking had anything to do with their unionising, Lau replied: “More or less”.
The alliance is one of at least five unions representing 8,300 drivers under KMB. Each group holds different views on how their benefits should be improved. All have been vocal in expressing their members’ grievances after a double-decker crashed in Tai Po on February 10, killing 19 passengers and leaving at least 67 injured.
It was the city’s worst road accident in nearly 15 years, and union leaders have highlighted long-running concerns about an overworked, underpaid and insufficiently trained pool of drivers.
On the programme, Lau said he believed the dismissal by KMB was an attempt to “settle the score” after the short-lived strike on February 24 opposing the firm’s new pay restructuring exercise. The action ended after KMB agreed to meet Yip days later.
“I think the public can clearly see it was retaliation,” she said early Wednesday after meeting management at the Stonecutters’ Island depot. But when asked the question on the programme, she appeared to seek a more conciliatory tone and declined to comment.
A KMB spokesman said on Tuesday night that Yip had stopped driving without authorisation during the strike, threatening the safety of passengers and other road users.
Lam Tsz-ho, deputy head of KMB’s communications and public affairs department, said the decision to suspend the dismissals was made after the drivers appealed against the move. He said the appeal would be handled by an independent committee according to established procedures.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong on Wednesday said the department was concerned about the incident but would not comment on the case’s legal aspects or facts as the company and employees were already communicating.
“KMB has an appeal mechanism and an established process,” Law said, adding that the two sides should be given “some time” to communicate.
“Our role at this stage is to be concerned and informed of the incident.”
Law conceded that collective bargaining was complicated in Hong Kong as companies were often dealing with more than one “representative” union with competing interests. This “unique situation” made it hard to reach terms acceptable to all.
“As to how we can make this work better to protect workers’ rights, this is of course something we will always have to work to improve.”
Separately, the department warned that an employer could face prosecution for sacking an employee over his or her engagement in trade union membership and activities.
“The Employment Ordinance protects the rights of employees to join a trade union,” a spokesman said, adding that the authority would reach out to the company to understand the reason behind its dismissal decisions.
Additional reporting by Kimmy Chung and Christy Leung