The largest bus company in Hong Kong has allowed four drivers who took part in a wildcat strike in February to resume their duties more than five weeks after they submitted an appeal amid the threat of dismissal.
On Friday, bus giant KMB revoked punitive measures on the four, but warned that they would face serious punishment if they violated company rules again.
Yip Wai-lam, leader of the strike, welcomed the decision saying: “We wish for a win-win future and a happy working environment for all frontline staff in all industries across Hong Kong.”
In a letter dated April 13 to Yip, the KMB appeal committee said that on February 24, she “severely violated the driving and working guidelines provided to all bus captains by the company … causing inconvenience for passengers and affecting the safety of public transport”.
The committee said after careful consideration, it decided to reinstate Yip following a warning issued to her.
“If you break traffic rules or company guidelines again, the case will be handled seriously. The company hereby reiterates that its first priority is to provide a safe and reliable service for the public,” the letter stated.
Shortly after 8pm on February 24, Yip and another KMB driver parked their buses inside a Tsim Sha Tsui terminus. One bus had about 10 passengers on board and the two vehicles blocked the station’s only exit. About five other buses not part of the strike were caught behind for 15 minutes.
Yip claimed at least a dozen drivers joined the industrial action, although traffic and bus operations across the city were mostly unaffected. The short-lived strike was initiated by the Full-time KMB Driver Alliance, led by Yip, to oppose a pay restructuring exercise by the company.
The pay changes came in light of Hong Kong’s worst road accident in nearly 15 years, in which 19 passengers were killed and at least 67 injured when a KMB double-decker flipped on its side in Tai Po on February 10.
Steven Kwok Wing-kin, chairman of the Labour Party, said while he welcomed KMB’s move to “correct a wrong decision”, he disagreed with the company’s insistence that Yip had “violated rules”.
“The warning in the letter shows KMB hasn’t recognised the right of staff to initiate industrial actions,” Kwok said. He added that legal protection for the right to launch strikes had been “very weak” in Hong Kong.
According to the city’s Employment Ordinance, employers are not allowed to penalise workers who take part in union activities at an appropriate time.
The ordinance stipulates that the activities should be organised by a trade union registered under the Trade Unions Ordinance, and an appropriate time should be outside working hours, or a time within working hours with employer consent.
It was not until March 2, six days after the strike, that Yip’s alliance made public it would apply to the Labour Department for a formal registration.
A spokeswoman of the department said the application was approved on March 28.
The alliance, which claims to represent 1,000 full-time drivers, was formed shortly before the strike in February and is one of at least five unions representing 8,300 drivers under KMB. Each of the unions holds different views on how bus drivers’ benefits should be improved.
Shorter hours on the road for 13,000 Hong Kong bus drivers after Tai Po crash but union worries about lower pay
Carol Ng Man-yee, chairwoman of the Confederation of Trade Unions, said KMB’s response to Yip was “less than ideal”.
Ng called on the company to seriously consider how to develop better relations with its employees in the long run. “Warning the striking workers means the bus company did not reflect on the cause of the strike, which is that a large number of their drivers have not had their voices heard for a long time,” Ng said.
A department spokeswoman said of the four drivers’ reinstatement: “We will continue to monitor the situation and offer assistance to the employer and employees if necessary.”