HONG KONG—Angel was scrolling through the messaging app Telegram late last year when she saw a notice advertising a new union for health-care employees; her interest was piqued. As a 25-year-old nurse in the surgery department of a major Hong Kong hospital, she works long hours and sees how the facility consistently struggles with a shortage of workers. Nurses in busy wards skip their holidays and time off to cover shifts, and Angel worries about the quality of care patients receive. The nursing association she was a member of advocated for better working conditions, but the results were minimal: The main benefits were discounts on food and travel packages. “It wasn’t exactly about political issues,” she told me of the group.
So Angel—who asked to be identified by her first name to avoid punishment from her employer—signed up for the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), an upstart organization born out of the prodemocracy protests that have carried on here for months. The sustained demonstrations have led to a surge of interest in organized labor: Numbers from the city’s labor department show that one dozen unions were established in the final two months of 2019, the HAEA among them. In the past year, at least 23 unions formed and were recognized by the labor department. Their organizers and members hope to diversify protest tactics, adding the possibility of industrial action to demonstrators’ growing tool kit for civil disobedience. At a New Year’s Day march, union representatives courted new members with flyers and banners playing on popular protest slogans and memes. “Resist tyranny, join a union” was added to the chorus of chants.