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Worker News: Hongkongers run website reporting from the grassroots side of labour disputes

In late 2017, Hoi Lai Estate, a public housing complex in Cheung Sha Wan, became an unlikely battleground for labour rights when its cleaning workers went on strike.

“Do not trick us out of the fruits of our labour,” protest banners read. The workers told reporters that they were cheated out of their severance payments when the previous company’s contract ended and the new contractor declined to honour long service payments. It soon emerged that the old and new cleaning contractors were related and – in fact – shared the same office.

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“Do not trick us out of the fruits of our labour,” protest banners read. Photo: Worker News.

As the episode unfolded, a small team of journalists got to work: some wrote from behind their laptops at home or at cafes that rotated as their unofficial office, while others were on the scene, ready to react to the latest developments. Thankfully, it was also the winter break, meaning that they were able to work with a number of students and interns, who gave them a boost.

The team spoke to residents of the estate, wrote an explainer on how subcontractor agreements are exploitative towards workers, and published a “diary” entry by a supporter of the movement who had been following the events. 

As the incident was confined to a particular housing estate, they knew it was essential that readers visualise the impact of the issue across the city, prompting them to conduct an investigation at other locations where the company operated across Hong Kong.

“Everyone says I’m very thorough with my cleaning, but such praise is hard-earned,” Ms Wong, a janitor with Hoi Lai Estate since 2005, told Worker News. Ms Wong pays frequent visits to the hospital for leg and back injuries, and recently her eyesight has started to blur, which she suspects has to do with the bleach she uses to clean toilets.

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Ms Wong now uses eyedrops for her eyesight problems. Photo: Worker News.

In January after a ten-day strike, the employers eventually agreed to increase the severance payment by a large sum along with a pay rise, marking a rare victory for labour rights. But for the journalists, the fight was not over: this was a crucial time to speak to labourers, organisers and supporters of the movement about their experiences so that what they learned could be passed on to others, and workers’ solidarity could be strengthened. 

Worker News is a grassroots news organisation that seeks to give voice to the working class and tell their stories. The site grew out of the dock worker strike in 2013, one of the biggest labour movements in Hong Kong in the past decade.

At the time, dock workers at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal went on strike for 40 days over work conditions and wages against the port operator —Hongkong International Terminals Ltd, a subsidiary that traces back to tycoon Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison. The workers had claimed that they work shifts between 12 to 24 hours and even had to relieve themselves in a bucket. The strike eventually ended after workers accepted a pay rise of around 10 per cent.

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A protest site at the heat of the dock strikes shows tycoon Li Ka-shing’s face stylised as a demon. Photo: Wikicommons.

As the strikes were happening, a group of students, workers and journalists noticed that workers would often make use of social media platforms to tell their stories or keep an eye on online media — realising there was a space for an alternative medium that focuses on issues relating to them. 

When they came together to launch Worker News in August 2013, they hoped that Worker News would not only be a media outlet, but a platform which could provide practical information to workers on matters such as labour laws or solutions to specific work problems. 

Now, five years later, it has covered the recent Kowloon Motor Bus strike, the plight of car wash workers, migrant pride parades, and countless overseas labour movements to name a few. It also has a “Wikipedia” section that discusses issues from maternity leave rights to an overview of the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance.

The outlet still only has six members in total and among them only one paid staff member: the part-time position is funded by all the team members, each of whom donates one-tenth of their salary to the post, allowing them to remain truly independent.

All others have full-time jobs and make time for Worker News duties during breaks and after-work hours whenever they can; they also raise funds on occasions such as the annual July 1 march and apply for project funding to stay sustainable.

The sole staff member is Fei, who was a student when the dock strikes took place. “The experience changed my life. It opened my eyes to the oppression that was happening in the world. The workers could be working for 72 hours continuously and would not get to see their family even on holidays. This isn’t bad luck, because that’s how the system works,” she told HKFP. “That’s when I started wondering how I could walk alongside them.”

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HKFP met with three members of Worker News, who declined to show their faces for fear of retaliation by the employers of their day jobs. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

But Fei had not always been a supporter of Worker News. A proponent of gender equality, Fei has long observed the masculine culture among the working class. She criticised the outlet when she saw a report on occupational injuries where they had used a picture of a woman’s naked back to attract readers. Rather than reacting defensively to her objections, Worker News instead invited her to join them.

Fei keeps an active interest in areas where labour rights and feminism intersect — and in Hong Kong, this is the domestic worker movement. She calls the movement “very progressive” with a strong level of self-organisation amongst workers from different countries—even given the difficult circumstances they face.

But more often than not, mainstream media are not on the side of workers. Fei recalls a recent incident when a domestic worker live-streamed an argument between her and her employer, where she is seen to be speaking Bahasa Indonesian.

Her elderly employer was seen to repeatedly hit her and make threats such as “I’ll chop you up.” But in local news outlet Apple Daily’s news animation clip, a voiceover pokes fun at the domestic worker and provides an imagined “translation” in a mocking tone.

Fei slammed the paper for failing to interview the domestic worker or collect sufficient background information before publishing the report. “All it did was cut [the clip] down to a couple of minutes, then add colour to it and make the perception [of domestic workers] worse than it already is [with the public].”

Worker News’s role in these situation is to fact-check the reports, she said. In response, Worker News spoke to the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body and published bilingual reports that provided the context to what the footage shows in full, in addition to drawing attention to the exploitation faced by domestic workers, such as the rule which requires them to live with their employers.

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Worker News also fact-checks mainstream media reports. Photo: Worker News.

Hang, another team member, stresses that such context is crucial to every story. “When something happens, there’s a background to the story and there are reasons. For example, TVB might show a clip of demonstrators protesting outside the government [headquarters], and would mention that they’re demanding this or that in response to the budget speech.”

“But what issues do these protesters usually stand for, and why are they advocating in this particular instance? Whether it’s a local or overseas issue — it shouldn’t just be one shot of them doing something eye-catching,” he added.

Worker News is not an ordinary media outlet. It defies many traditional journalistic principles: for one, its reporters always allow the interviewees to review their quotes before the publication of an article.

This, they explained to a crowd at a digital media summit last year, is because of the power imbalance between the interviewer and interview subject – a media outlet has a wide and influential reach and if a worker made a comment through a slip of tongue that they later regretted, they could easily lose their job.

The outlet also does not believe in “balanced” reporting. “[T]he so-called balanced style of writing often erases the voices of workers,” it explains on its page. To the team, “balanced” means more than just getting a comment from the government or the corporation behind the story without fact-checking the truth with their statements.

One instance the team raised as an example were the dock strikes. “The work was very hard on the back and many workers suffer from permanent disability. But during the dock strike, a newspaper spoke to the company employing the workers, and they painted a picture that it was an attractive job. But because we’ve interviewed the workers, we would know what challenges they really face.”

As Worker News lacks the resources to meet the speed and quantity demanded by traditional news deadlines, it mainly focuses on long in-depth reports on labour issues. It has thus embarked on interactive and multimedia projects on a range of topics: the tenth anniversary of steel bar benders 36-day strikes, a map of workplace injuries in China, and even a record of the votes each former and current lawmaker has cast on labour, welfare and education issues.

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Despite limited resources, Worker News embark on interactive and multimedia projects. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

“The reader can choose whether they’re a blue or white collar worker, if they live in a public or private housing estate, and so on… and we would let them know what issues are related to them and how each party has voted on the topic. Many labourers spend a lot of time at work – you can’t expect them to read everything and go through each issue,” she said.

In a special section, Worker News dove deep into the lives of working class individuals from different professions: from transgender sex workers to van drivers, teachers to insurance agents. “If you ask me whether speaking to these people changed my perception — I can say that that happens every time,” Fei said.

“In these five years with Worker News, I was given a very first-hand way of understanding the world. A lot of the time, we’re learning through news or Facebook — but apart from our friends or family, it may not be easy to speak to other people. And we have many opportunities to do this,” Fei said.

But she said that there was more work to do: “A lot of our readers still tend to be young and educated — we’re not quite there yet in terms of reaching an ordinary grassroots worker… for example, cleaners may not have heard of us, and we would usually send them pieces we’ve previously published to gain their trust.”

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Hoi Lai cleaners and supporters protesting outside Housing Department. Photo: In-Media.

In recent years, online publications such as InMedia or Initium have provided more positive and dedicated coverage to worker issues, and both have followed the recent Hoi Lai episode closely.  

But when it comes to most traditional media, Fei believes there are still constraints. “They want hit rates [for their articles] and to match the needs of the market, so sometimes what they say is not necessarily the truth, and the focus is always on tragic and dramatic stories,” she said.

“Workers aren’t just victims. They too have the power to reflect upon and change their lives — but media reports could cause them to become disempowered, and they themselves may feel like the situation will never improve,” Fei observed.

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During the Hoi Lai Estate strikes. Photo: Worker News.

Worker News articles may never go viral, but they fill a much needed gap in Hong Kong’s media. The outlet stands on the side of the marginalised, and plays an active role in empowering workers.

“Many of these social problems exist because we don’t understand other people and only think about ourselves… sometimes it’s because we’re selfish, but other times it’s because we didn’t know that others have the same problems as us. We could fix it together if we understand other people’s situations,” Fei said.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.

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Worker News: Hongkongers run website reporting from the grassroots side of labour disputes