Hong Kong Hospital Workers to Strike Over Coronavirus
Organized labor wants the territory to shut its borders to mainland China
Chuin-Wei Yap and
Thousands of Hong Kong hospital workers voted to press ahead with a five-day strike starting Monday, kicking off a bid by organized labor to force the government to fully shut its borders to mainland China as cases of the deadly coronavirus tick up in the territory.
The gambit draws the health system into an eight-month political fight between the government and a broad coalition of opponents, as medical unions extend a campaign by a protest movement to force far-reaching policy changes from Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam.
Mrs. Lam said Friday she didn’t think a full border closure was “the right answer” to combat the epidemic. She didn’t accept an invitation on Sunday to meet with union leaders a day after the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance voted 3,123-to-10 at a general meeting to authorize the strike. The union, which counts 18,000 members, says it is aiming to shut down about 5% of hospital staffing.
Hospital Authority’s chief executive, Tony Ko Pat-sing, said at a Sunday news conference that the authority will launch an emergency coordination center in preparation for the planned strike. He expressed concern as the health system is under pressure from winter influenza cases as well as the virus outbreak.
Mrs. Lam has closed about half of Hong Kong’s border checkpoints, including ferries and high-speed rail services from the mainland, and said she’ll consider more quarantine measures. Still, one of her cabinet advisers in an interview on public radio on Sunday hinted more shutdown measures might be coming. Hong Kong’s state-owned metro operator on Sunday shut Lo Wu rail station, a major crossing for mainland visitors, though it is unclear if the measure was in response to the virus or concerns that protesters were targeting the site.
“We absolutely do not believe that any so-called measures can be effective under the premise of letting more suspected cases enter Hong Kong through the Chinese mainland,” the hospital workers’ alliance said in a statement Saturday, calling the strike a last resort.
Mrs. Lam said Friday a total border shutdown with China is “discriminatory.” The government has closed schools for at least the next month, shut public facilities and reduced postal services. It is advising residents to stay away from public places, leading to grousing on social media from citizens who feel under house arrest as Chinese visitors still trickle in.
The government has appealed to the union not to strike and said it is examining further measures to tighten border controls.
Singapore on Friday became the first Southeast Asian nation to bar foreign nationals who had been in China in the last 14 days. The U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Mongolia and North Korea have taken similar steps.
Like Hong Kong, Macau, a similarly semiautonomous Chinese territory, has deported mainland visitors hailing from Hubei, China’s most virus-afflicted province; halved air traffic and reduced tour bus arrivals from China; and suspended ferry services with Hong Kong.
Hong Kong recorded its 14th confirmed infection late Saturday, up from two a week ago.
“We are acutely aware of the resource limitations and manpower deficiencies in public health care,” a group of hundreds of nonstriking medical staff said in a petition supporting the border closure on Friday. “Given how rapidly the virus has spread, we are alarmed at the reluctance of the Hong Kong government to take meaningful action to control the impending outbreak.”
The 18,000-member union said it planned for Monday’s action to consist of a strike on some nonemergency services, to be followed by an escalation from Tuesday. The alliance said it had some 9,000 signatures on a petition pledging to join the strike, though turnout at Saturday’s vote represented only about one-third of these.
The Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association said it supported the checkpoint shutdown to stem the epidemic.
Other labor unions, including metro operators, aviation industry, and postal workers, also signaled support for the hospital strike.
The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union since Friday began reaching out to its members to evaluate a move to urge the government on a total border shutdown. The union said in a statement it wants Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, to suspend all China flights.
“We are aware of the crew’s concerns,” Cathay said in an emailed response Sunday. “We have been and will continue to communicate closely with our crew.”