HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong's largest independent trade union disbanded on Sunday (Oct 3), stoking concerns over the space for civil society groups as a national security law stifles dissent in the global financial centre.
Members of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) voted to break up because "political uncertainty" had made it difficult to continue, its vice-chairman Leo Tang said, declining to elaborate further.
"In the meeting, all our affiliates made the hard decision," he said. "It's a heartbroken decision."
While anti-government protests in 2019 generated a new wave of labour activism in Hong Kong and triggered a 35 per cent jump in registered trade unions, groups have been scrambling to disband since Beijing imposed the security law last year.
Fears of falling foul of the law and facing terms of up to life in jail have seen at least 29 trade unions disband since the start of this year, according to a tally by Reuters.
HKCTU's Tang said members of the group had received threats to their personal safety, without going into further details.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has denied that the government is carrying out a crackdown on civil society, and the authorities say all law enforcement actions have been based on evidence and have nothing to do with the political beliefs of those arrested.
Some activists say the landscape for unions in Hong Kong is increasingly starting to resemble mainland China.
"Unions will be subject to greater scrutiny if they are not already. In that way, it's very similar to the mainland where labour activism is considered threatening by authorities, where there is no independent labour activism organised," Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said.
Pro-Beijing media have suggested the union was a "foreign agent" or "colluding with foreign forces" - punishable by up to life in prison under the security law - due to its affiliation with the International Trade Union Confederation, an accusation both HKCTU and the global group deny.
"To suggest there is some collusion with HKCTU or other union leaders, with the international community is to simply misunderstand the global solidarity that is part of our DNA," Sharan Burrows, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said.
HKCTU says it has helped scores of construction, dock and cleaning workers win back wages withheld by employers over the years and also negotiated on their behalf to increase salaries in line with inflation.
The group has 15 training centres in Hong Kong, providing more than 200 vocational courses. The centres will now close, affecting more than 1,000 students, the union said.
The umbrella group of 75 unions has helped push through reforms, improving maternity leave from ten weeks to 14, increasing sick leave compensation and helped legislate the city's first minimum wage bill, according to activists.