The most divisive law proposal of the post-handover period is making its way back to the Legislative Assembly where it will once again mean trouble for the usually- harmonious voices of the establishment.
No other bill generates as much fervent interest from Macau’s rubber- stamp parliament than the trade union and collective bargaining bill.
Introduced about once a year, the coming of the bill signals a brief lapse in the bipartisan entrenchments of pan-democrat against pan-establishment. Instead, the democrats find themselves in an awkward alliance with the worker representatives, who are together pitted against the business interests of the legislature.
The law proposal has been voted down nine times at the Legislative Assembly, with the last two readings tallying 12 votes in favor and 15 against on each occasion.
As the latest installment in the trade union bill saga unfolds, one unlikely player to watch is incumbent and outgoing Chief Executive Chui Sai On, who, via his seven appointed legislators, alone wields the influence to greenlight the proposal.
Leaving a legacy
The bill’s most recent reading, a matter of weeks after the September 2017 Legislative Assembly elections, denied proponents’ hopes that the new legislative makeup would be enough to tip the scales in their favor.
As in the previous iteration of the Legislative Assembly, the sixth legislature hosts a total of four pro-democrat lawmakers likely to side with the bill, with New Macau’s Sulu Sou replacing Pereira Coutinho’s lieutenant, Leong Veng Chai of New Hope.
Newcomer Agnes Lam, who claims to represent the ‘middle ground’ in Macau politics, sided with the bill in its most recent reading, as did workers’ representative Leong Sun Iok, also elected for the first time. Pro-business lawmaker Melinda Chan lost her seat in the 2017 election, weakening the bill’s opposition and closing the gap between the two camps.
Spearheading the proposal for his sixth time, lawmaker Pereira Coutinho says he cannot rely only on directly-elected lawmakers, the majority of whom are already on board with a trade union and collective bargaining bill.
Instead, he will seek to convince Chief Executive Chui Sai On – who once represented workers in the Legislative Assembly – to instruct the government- appointed lawmakers to support the bill.
“We don’t expect any support from the business representatives at the Legislative Assembly, and it will very difficult without the Chief Executive giving these instructions [to the appointed lawmakers],” Coutinho told the Times in an interview yesterday. But in doing so, Chui “will leave a positive mark on the people and the future of Macau.”
Wrong side of history
“The right and freedom to form and join trade unions” is enshrined in Article 27 of Macau’s Basic Law, and the Special Administrative Region is party to several international conventions that make it mandatory to recognize such a right. For long-time political analyst Eric Sautedé, the absence of a trade union law is a de jure violation of Macau’s mini-constitution.
“I don’t think we are at the tipping point,” confesses Sautedé, who is also the director of development for China Labour Bulletin, a non-governmental organization promoting workers’ rights on the mainland. “The democratically-elected lawmakers are mostly in favor as they have to be accountable [to the public] and that makes it very difficult not to support this bill. But all the others are against it and I don’t see that changing.”
Asked about Coutinho’s plan to enlist the support of the outgoing Chief Executive, Sautedé suggested that, given his history of association with the workers’ electoral list, should Chui “not want to support this bill, maybe he will be seen as on the wrong side of history.”
The political analyst also believes Agnes Lam will continue to side with the democrats. That is notwithstanding last week’s spat with Coutinho when the latter accused Lam of inconsistencies between her spoken enquiries and voting pattern. On the matter, Coutinho said that he couldn’t be sure Lam would support the proposal.