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In Hong Kong's gig economy, freedom remains elusive for most ‘slashies’

Image: Wikimedia Commons. Author: สุวรรณา วิเศษแก้ว CC-AT-SA

As internet connectivity expands worldwide, millions of people are increasingly turning to outsourced, digitally mediated work as a way to earn extra cash, or to overcome some of the barriers of their local labor markets. But while the gig economy means freedom and flexibility for some, for others it comes with uncertainty, lack of legal protections and isolation.

How does that play out in Hong Kong? In this place where wage growth lags behind living costs — between March 2016 and December 2017, the real wages have risen a meager 6.6 percent, against a 47 percent increase of property prices — the trend of casualizing labor dates back to 1997. Under the grip of the Asian financial crisis, companies turned to outsource its support activities — such as security guards and cleaners — in order to cope.

But once Hong Kong recovered flexible work increasingly found its way into the status quo. A recent study by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups (HKFYG) revealed that of the 528 employees interviewed 51.1 percent were flexible workers — among them, 29.7 percent take part-time jobs, 21.3 percent do temporary work, and 20 percent pick up extra shifts after a regular day job.

In Hong Kong, the trend is certainly aided by the fact that financial services and information technology, its two fastest-expanding economic sectors, favor the hiring of contractors. A survey conducted by Robert Walters in 2016 showed that as much as 60% of local contractors are hired by the financial services sector.

Meanwhile, employers find ways to get around the loopholes of Hong Kong's Employment Ordinance. Some employees are hired to work just under 18 hours a week each four consecutive weeks, ensuring they cannot be legally classified as “continuously employed”. That way, they are not entitled to welfare benefits such as paid statutory holidays and paid vacation.

Stagnant wages, skyrocketing rent and an emerging global culture of flexible work: such toxic mix means that even when Hongkongers manage to secure a stable job, they might still take up extra work.

Despite such gloomy predicament, Hong Kong's mainstream media has borrowed the Western term “slash” — presumably proposed in 2012 by author Marci Alboher — to describe this job culture in a rather positive light. Unlike those who juggle various gigs as a means of survival, the “slashie” views flexible work as a choice or a career strategy.

While millennials and new parents are the typical “slashies” portrayed by the mainstream press, not all Hongkongers embrace this new state of affairs. Popular online writer Wu Sai-kwan says:

香港人講到 #Slash (斜槓/多職)和創業,通常只得ABC餐﹕

A. 透過勇氣、毅力、才能、智慧、人際網絡,在苦幹過後捱出頭來,收入比從前高、穩定、滿足感溢出,差點要大叫﹕「阿媽,我得咗啦﹗」咦﹗即係阿爺所講的「獅子山精神」?
B. 雖然出師未捷,但身仍未死(未餓死),深信「我依家無,但將來會有。」不怨天怨地、不問「為何我爸非馬雲?」總之每天花200%努力,永不放棄同學會、正能量L。
C. 乞兒(完)。

當然,絕大部份香港打工仔均非 #Slashers,理想和現實總有落差。繼我話,港式Slashers只有DEF三種:

D. 富二代/有人養(得啦得啦,知你幸福啦﹗)
E. 公屋居民
F. 已供滿自住樓,甚至有多層樓收租人士

When Hongkongers talk about #Slash and making a career, they present the ABC scenario:

A. Through courage, determination, talent, wisdom, social connections and hard work, they earn a high income, stability and satisfaction. They almost yell: ‘Mom, I got it!’. This is another version of the Lion Rock spirit [Hong Kong dream], as repeatedly stressed by the Grandpa [pro-Beijing pro-establishment sector].
B. Although not successful, they still manage to survive. They believe that one day they will achieve. They don't blame others and don't ask themselves: why didn't I have a father like Ma Yun [the founder of Chinese multinational e-commerce Alibaba]. Everyday they devote 200% of their effort, they never give up, always with positive energy.
C. [End up becoming] Beggars (period).

Of course, [the] majority of Hong Kong employees are not #Slashers, the dream and the reality are not the same. I believe Hong Kong only has three types of slashers, here is DEF scenario:

D. Second-generation rich/ [they have] someone who can support their dream (ok, ok, I know you are very lucky and happy).
E. Those who live in public housing (they don't have to pay rent).
F. They don't have to pay [a] mortgage, or they even have an extra property and have some rental income.

Wu's comment resonates with the HKFYG's finding, which concludes that reason behind flexible labor in Hong Kong among the youth seems to be more of a survival strategy than a career choice. The study reveals that while 52.4% of respondents said flexible labor can generate more income, only 16.8% said they do it because they want to develop their career or seek a better work-life balance.

Moreover, flexible workers are highly exploited, as stated in their report:

部分深入受訪個案反映,他們的就業模式普遍不獲僱主、家人和朋友認同,甚至因此而令酬金遭壓抑,其工作態度亦備受質疑。此外,他們一般對保障欠缺重視,包括自由職業者(freelancer)與機構之間未必有訂下合約,以至出現問題時缺乏保障;兼職者亦因種種原因而未獲合法權益,甚至連所簽訂的合約屬何種性質也未必清楚。

In the in-depth interviews, the flexible workers have a hard time getting recognition from employers, family members and friends. Their salary is usually less than average, and employers tend to question their work attitude. They are unaware of their labor rights. Most freelancers have not signed [a] contract with the employers and disputes have appeared as they are unprotected. The part-timers also do not enjoy legal protection, some do not know the nature of contract that they have signed with the employers.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions also took note of the exploitative situation and urged for more protection of flexible workers, following the United States’ legislation of the Freelance Isn't Free Act.

To some extent, the media's cheerful treatment of Hong Kong's slash culture could bring some positive energy for the younger generations. Tang Wai Fung is among those who chose flexible labor to fulfill his dream of being a musician; he explained his choice in an interview:

被問到會否擔心slash的工作及生活無保障,鄧另有一番見解,認為自由工作者反可分攤風險,因為他同時教10多名學生,即使少了1個學生,亦只會損失約1至2成收入,但若全職員工被裁,就會丟了飯碗。另外,他認為自由工作可更有自主性,形容是自己的老闆,可控制自己更專注教結他抑或表演,更可以興趣為職業…

When asked if being a slash would make him worry about income security, Tang has a theory — freelancing is less risky. If you were teaching 10 students and one left, you would have lost 10 to 20% of your income. If you were a full-timer, once sacked, you lose everything. Freelancing is more autonomous and you can be your own boss. You can choose to focus on teaching guitar or doing performance. You can develop your interest into a career.

However, very few people can manage a slash work schedule, as human resources blogger, HK bear, pointed out:

做slash族,睇就好自由,有決心衝出黎都要做足事前準備,最concern既一定係經濟上既考慮。無左固定收入,至少要set條底線俾自己每月要賺到幾多錢去維持生計,可能仲要計算埋俾家用既需要。當可以自由咁安排時間… 要重新學會去管理時間… 無左直屬上司指點你,唔會再有同事長時間同你拍住上,所有決定同後果都要自己一力承擔。

People tend to think that ‘slashies’ enjoy more freedom. If you have already made up your mind, you will have to prepare for it and the greatest concern will be economic. Without a fixed income, you need to set a bottom line for your basic monthly income to make ends meet. Although time is more flexible, you need to learn how to manage time well. Without someone senior instructing you on what to do, or a partner-colleague assisting you, you need to bear all the consequences resulting from your decisions.

Unfortunately, given the economic stress in Hong Kong, very few can actively make a choice to be a “slashie”. The majority of the flexible labor market, like some of the world's major cities, seems to be doing it out of bare necessity.

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