They are proposed as a group for the 1000 women Nobel Peace Price 2005.
The Women Workers’ Cooperative WWC was established in the 1990s when Hong Kong industries were moved north to mainland China. The WWC opens up a new space that is based on mutual support and cooperation: women workers have the opportunity to rediscover and reactivate themselves through cultural and economic involvement. The Women Workers Cooperative WWC is a continuous self-strengthening group.
They say: “We can control our own fate through united force and be creative”.
Women Workers’ Cooperative – Hong Kong, China
The Women Workers’ Cooperative WWC was established in the 1990s when Hong Kong industries were moved north to mainland China. Similar to situations in other countries, women workers were the first to be retrenched, as people believed that they could easily return home and resume full-time the care-taking role. In Hong Kong, it was assumed that women workers could easily switch to the then flourishing service industry and it was only a short-term adjustment issue.
It has however been neglected that many women workers had to continue working as a means of livelihood. And the sad and cruel reality was that these women workers, who entered the factories when they finished primary school, were in their mid 30s in the 1990s. They had encountered enormous hardships and difficulties in mastering new skills while their previous experiences had little, if not none at all, market value. Many remained unemployed for a long time. Many have had to take on jobs that are very low paying, with unreasonably long hours, and nasty working conditions.
The idea to form a cooperative was bred over a period of exploration. A group of retrenched women workers got together and started to learn computer and typing. They also tried to study other languages in a bid to enhance their market value. All this was done with a lot of difficulties along the way. They all shared the sentiment of feeling powerless in the face of social changes and were angry that they had been dumped and disposed off after these years of hard work. They gave support to each other, and explored different kinds of possibilities to accumulate resources and strength. The idea of organizing a cooperative gradually took shape as various attempts to change professions failed. WWC was finally established and all its members were retrenched women factory workers. Women workers of other professions and house makers joined later.
They set up different kinds of cooperative businesses. WWC has opened up a new space that is based on mutual support and cooperation. Not only has it improved the living conditions of the women workers, it also enables them to live in “alternative living and relationship” which emphases on shared responsibilities and mutual advancement, economic independence, equal distribution of economic resources, democratic decision, as well as concern over social and cultural development and social participation. The mainstream society does not encourage or provide the women workers with resources to create this type of living and relationship. To strive for the continuation of such a space, women at the WWC have made protracted sacrifices and worked extremely hard.
Businesses WWC had undertaken included Chinese typesetting and data entry, and a survey on low-income families. In recent years, to address the need of Shum Shui Po, a low-income district, WWC operates a community recycling shop and engages in collecting and reselling second-hand goods. It also operates the UnionMart that sells daily food and necessities. Over the past 11 years, they have been able to create full-time and part-time positions for themselves and other members.
WWC is not only a work place, but also a women workers’ group. It is a place where members learn to be self-governed and practice decision-making for themselves. They own their cooperative business. They are also community organizers. They have undertaken the low-income family survey and have been active in debates on community economy with other groups in the social movement. They realize that the effort of the women workers’ group alone is not enough to change the overall situation. They want to join hands with different communities and groups to enhance their capacity for changes. They want to work with more people to reconstruct the living space at the grassroots level.
Workers are becoming more and more marginalized today. It affects every single worker who is at the lower stream of the labor market, regardless of his or her origin or sex. Worst still, the government has over the past few years tried to divide the society by scandalizing the poor people, including those who live on social assistance, and mainland Chinese who have been fighting for the right of residence in Hong Kong. WWC realizes the danger and makes efforts to provide mutual support and establish friendship with other grassroots groups.
Over the past 11 years, people have left and rejoined, and there are also new members. The concept of cooperative was unfamiliar to many people in Hong Kong in the early 1990s. There was no precedent for reference. Neither was the social condition suitable or favorable for the operation of cooperatives. WWC members are however sensitive and persistent, but not afraid to attempt new challenges. This is the most important factor why WWC has survived for 11 years. Their social and cultural participation is also the key to their continuous struggle.
Within the WWC, members always have to face the issue of cooperation, and discover their weaknesses in the process. To recognize and to overcome their own weaknesses is something they have to deal with everyday. Members grow through their mistakes. Among others, there are also complaints from their families because they often work very long hours. Whether to meet family members’ expectations or to engage them in their work is another difficult issue WWC members have to frequently face. Some have successfully involved their families, turning them into supportive forces, and then spread their experience to other groups.
As a disadvantaged group in society, WWC’s continuous efforts and their mutual support finally opened up a new path. Their courage, perseverance, and experience served as reference and encouragement for other vulnerable groups. The experience of WWC has proved that women workers can control their own fate through cooperation and being creative. Other vulnerable groups have thus been enlightened and encouraged.
The experience of WWC has also appealed to more and more people from other social sectors to work for the reconstruction of low-income communities in Hong Kong. Their social and cultural participation has broken down the barriers among various disadvantaged groups, paving the way for a future in which the vulnerable could be more united instead of trampling on each other.
Through joint effort, these women workers, who are among the vulnerable of Hong Kong society and who have been challenged by the structural change of the economy, have successfully created a place for themselves where they can learn to self-govern and practice making decisions for themselves. They work hard to establish cooperation and make a step forward in the cooperative movement in Hong Kong. They fight against division among groups at the grassroots level and even surpass regional limitations to seek possibilities of solidarity and alliance with disadvantaged groups in other areas like Taiwan and mainland China. (1000peacewomen).
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