"I Will Turn The Lights Out Before I Leave"

The following is an article in Ming Pao (via InMediaHK) from Kwok In-Ling (郭燕玲), the former assistant editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong newspaper Sing Pao.  She was the leader of an industrial action against Sing Pao for not paying its employees.  So this is the partial insider story of the demise of what was once a great newspaper.

[in translation]

(Statement from the Ming Pao editor)  The matter of the owed wages to the employees at Sing Pao has received the attention of the Labor Department and the Pension Department and may move into the legal process.  Although the principal shareholder of Sing Pao has publicly promised to support Sing Pao, the employees are continuing to leave.  At this point, almost 40 frontline reporters have left.  The industrial action involved 23 Sing Pao employees who "asked time off" to protest not receiving wages from their employer.  Some of them have quit right after the action, including Kwok In-Ling, the assistant editor-in-chief who had been at Sing Pao for eleven years and was responsible for the Hong Kong news and political news sections.  Our newspaper invited Kwok In-Ling for an interview in order to understand how this leader of the 23-person action group decided to lead her colleagues to stand up, walk out of the editorial room and become news figures themselves.  After discussion, Kwok In-ling decided to write an article herself in the first person to the citizens of Hong Kong and explain what happened.

In life, there is no choice for many things.  Something that happens like non-returnable delivery services will just have to accepted, and then you can throw the item out with the packaging afterwards.  I had been hoping that among all the colleagues in the groups that I am responsible for, I would be the last to leave Sing Pao.  Then I would have sent everybody off without leaving anyone behind.  I would be the last to leave.  Before I leave, I will turn off the light and air-conditioning.  But the fact is that we cannot choose between oranges and pears, and we only got a handful of grapes.  So I left before some other colleagues.  While they were still working in the office, I left first.  During the week when we decided not to show up for work, it was always raining.  The grayish unstable weather makes people feel bad.  This was the rainy season before the end of spring, but why does it have to so long and vacillating between rain and clouds?  I hope that this kind of weather would pass soon, and we can receive the coming of summer with a light heart.

On April 26, the Government Information Office director Yau Tung-hwa held a luncheon at Meili Building.  There were no announcements, so it was an occasion for the media workers to get together in one place, get acquainted with each other, exchange business cards and prepare to collaborate later.  Many professionals asked me about Sing Pao and about when we got paid and how many people have left.  Ever since there were financial problems at Sing Pao, these questions became obligatory every time that we went out.  At first, we were annoyed; then we got used to it.  After all, these questions were unanswerable.  I thought that this may be the last time that I would attend this meeting as a representative of Sing Pao.  We had already decided to take action on April 29.  Unless there was a breakthrough, we would do it and then I would resign afterwards and discontinue my 11-year-old life at Sing Pao in North Point.

Our assessment at the time was that the probability of having to take action was 20%.

Another colleague had left Sing Pao.  He said that he saw the financial situation here was unstable and many people were leaving.  So when he found another job, he resigned.  I bought a set of François Truffaut DVD's as a present.  He said that it will be a few more days before he officially starts at his new job, so he will have time to watch them at home.  On his last day at Sing Pao, he followed the tradition by ordering afternoon tea from the outside.  We have had this type of farewell afternoon tea often enough, but much more frequently so during the past two or three months.  Every time that a colleague asked to speak to me, I can tell from their expressions that they will soon be treating us to afternoon tea.

One colleague told me at the time of her resignation that she really did not want to work elsewhere.  But the pay periods here were unstable and it has been getting later and later every month . It was uncertain when we will get paid next month.  She has parents and younger sisters, and so she is the main family support.  She did not want to take any risk, so she decided to jump to another newspaper.  She said that she knows that the new place will not be as happy as Sing Pao and she may not get along as well over there.  But she has no choice because she has to sustain the family.  She thanked us for the opportunities to learn and she thanked us for teaching her.  She said that she did not want to leave.  If it were not for the owed wages, she would stay even though the pay is not very high here ... by that point, tears began to come out of her eyes.

Every time that I see someone else cry, I pray that I would not be the first to cry along with them.  Ever since the middle of last year, 98% of the departing colleagues did so over the pay issue.  Therefore, I will not try to retain them, because we have no chips to bargain with.  I will not open my eyes wide and tell them that it is a beautiful world here with unlimited resources waiting to be developed and therefore they should stay.  I only hope that they can find a better mooring place and continue to advance elsewhere.

Before the 1997 return, those people who had no confidence in Hong Kong began to immigrate.  The more resourceful ones were the first to leave for Canada, United States and England -- in any case, away from Hong Kong.  Those people who had limited resources were even willing to go to Central or South America, as long as they can get away.  I told my colleagues that the late wages were the fault of the company.  We have to eat.  To be fair, it is not their fault to choose to leave and they should not feel that they should be ashamed in front of me or anyone else.  A person must think about oneself and not be swayed by emotions.  I asked them not to say whom they have wronged; they should say that it was Sing Pao which wronged them.

As fewer and fewer people remained and we were just cutting the positions out as people left, I counted which news events needed people to follow up on.  Then I found that we were looking at a tragedy.  The healthcare beat was basically empty; education was barely able to hold up, except that some people there have to also take care of the healthcare beat at the same time.  Nobody is looking after labor and social welfare.  Transportation was left to a rookie reporter.  More seriously, except for a few veterans, most of them are inexperienced new reporters who require "intensive care"-like attention from their supervisors.  When the news were breaking, this was possible.  Only the political group was slightly better stable with four people.  I know that some colleagues had elected to stay in order to help everybody go through the hardships.  I wanted to tell them: comradeship cannot be served as food.  But I really thought that they were very good comrades.

I know about the quality of local news better than anyone.  Every day, I open the newspaper and I know whether the cards in our hand were winners or losers.  By May 1 this year, I will have been here for 11 years.  Work was not easy, and it got harder from one year to the next.  Sometimes, I didn't even have time to say one or two sentences to anyone.  I came to work and I charged all the way through the day.  By the time that I can take a breath of relief, I find that it was so late that all my colleagues have gone home already.  This was not a normal and healthy lifestyle.  It should not be like this.  This was abnormal.  But I never complained about being busy because it was busy but never chaotic.  Being busy never bothered us.  We were not afraid of the difficult times.  We continued to endure and we even asked to get more news for those sections that were not as tight.  If we thought that something was worthwhile, we would pay the price no matter how much.

The disappointing thing was that by this stage when we were understaffed, the team of 15 people (five officer workers and 10 reporters) in the local news and political news groups must find the bodies to deal with the big news of the day in order to put out the fires first.  Then the reporters started to discover that they did not have to time to follow the events within their areas.  By the time that they found some time, they discovered that someone else had gotten there already.

In the past, each person took care of two news items; today, three items.  In the past, the ratio of news gathering on the outside and writing the report back at the company was 9:1; now it has gone up to 6:4.  For example, the colleague for security had to handle two news items on healthcare on the same day.  By the time he completed his assignment, it was in the middle of the night and he has missed the office hours during which he could call the security officials and other experts.  Everyday, he was putting out fires and he forgot that he was actually supposed to be covering police matters.

This was not an ideal situation with respect to the quality of the newspaper as well as the training of the colleagues.  We needed a breakthrough and we needed a solution.

How to solve this?  The senior managers said that there was no money to hire people, and they could consider hiring replacements eventually.  But the most critical issue is the wages, for which they are seeking solutions.  The situation should or may likely improve and we were asked to be patient.  The reality is that we have been paying for our own transportation expenses for several month without reimbursement, the pension plan has not been paid and pay day has been pushed back from the beginning of the month to the middle of the month.  In April, the workers in the company threatened that they would go out on strike unless they got paid.  This forced the boss to come out in person and give us a time schedule.  As the wages got delayed longer and longer, our resistance grew stronger and stronger.  Half of the salary in the month of February was late by 24 days.  We ask, What happens next month?

As the work volume grew and there was no pay for the work, more and more colleagues left.  As the manpower resources tightened, the quality of the news deteriorated.  As the newspaper was reducing the number of pages, big news items were shrunk in size.  The KCT-MTR merger story was supposed to be three pages, but we ended up with a 1-1/2 pages.  These problems can only get worse if we are unable solve the problem of wages.

What kind of quality do we need for our newspaper?  What kind of team do we need as our colleagues?  What kind of working environment do we need?  When we don't have the chips to retain colleagues, when we don't have the means to hire talents, when we don't have any room for holding people responsible, then what was the point of going on any further?  What good is this for the colleagues?  I expect that I demand nothing from all this, in order to avoid disappointment.  But the world is not like this, and life should not be like this either.

I may not be able to stand with colleagues until the final moment.  But before I leave, I hope that I can win something more for them.  I cut my long hair which I have let grown for a year and a half.  When I told the hairdresser to cut it short, she was surprised and ask: "Didn't you say that you want to keep it long?"  I said that I wanted some change.  Once I make up my mind, I am more determined than anyone else.

The work absence action was originally going to be initiated on April 21.  In mid-April, we presented three demands to senior management: the wages for the first half of March should be paid by April 20; the wages for the second half of March should be paid by April 28; wages should be paid no later than the 7th of every month thereafter.  For the first demand, we shouted until our voices grew hoarse.  Finally, on late night of April 20, the workers and the management reached an accord and avoided an early incident.  Then there were some personnel shifts within the management but this did not shake our determination to take action.  After the talks broke down late night on April 28, we decide to take action no matter what people have to say.

Since we decided to take action, I and several colleagues made some preparations early morning on April 29.  We did not say anything as we worked: we collected a bunch of contact telephone numbers, we took out some essential items and we cleared out our desk tops.  By the time that we left the company, it was 3am.

At the quiet bus stop on the street, there were still one or two people waiting for the all-night bus just like me.  My mind was blank.  A colleague who was in the action said farewell to me, "See you tomorrow."  We shook hands in mutual encouragement.  The night sky was clear as the hot rain had ceased at some unknown point.  We longed for the timely summer rain.

Action!  In the end we could not avoid taking action.  The 20% chance turned up, and the payoff on the bet could have been quite good.  At the final meeting when we asked the colleagues about whether we should start the action, they were less enthusiastic than before as they began to think about more practical problems.  I believe that collective absence to express our discontent is a very serious matter.  We were not trying to become romantic heroes and we did not intend to bring down the company.  But we can imagine that when this happens, this will be a big news item that gets a lot of attention.  Our profession is news reporting, and we must know which kinds of news items become headliners.

Under these circumstances, it can be imagined what the bad consequences are even if the newspaper was published.  People asked me: It's only half a month's pay.  Is it necessary to ruin the reputation of a 67-year-old newspaper? Once the newspaper folds, more than 300 employees and their families will be confronted with livelihood issues, and the victims will curse you for your selfishness.

The buses run infrequently at night. I waited for a long, long time.  We were disgusted with the endless wait for a response on the date of the next pay check; we were disgusted with the days of asking for our back wages; we were disgusted with seeing colleagues with good potential leave on account of irregular pay; we were disgusted with the sense of helplessness after they departed; we were disgusted with not being able to provide the space for the remaining colleagues to learn; we were disgusted that there were things that we can do well but we were unable to due to lack of resources; we were disgusted by the fact that we have needs but we have no space for even holding our own workers responsible; we were disgusted that we have to remind the managers about the deadlines; we were disgusted that whenever we encountered colleagues, we had to bring up the company's situation and then sigh; we were disgusted by the fact that they had no capital but they dragged this on and refused to close down.  Ten million disgusting things.

We needed to take action and make a breakthrough to let the floods flow.  Sinner and hero; criticism and praise; wrong and right.  We cannot be bothered.  Sorry, our action began.

Finally, this day has arrived.  The telephone calls on the first day out (April 29) began at 930am and kept ringing non-stop.  From the busy early morning period to the busy evening period.  Every five minutes, both telephones began to ring at the same time.  During the less busy periods, the telephone calls were less concentrated.  We were beginning to experience what it felt like to be pursued by reporters.  It was a lot harder to be away from work than at work.  We took telephone calls from morning to afternoon.  Then we held a meeting in the afternoon to discuss the next steps and draft a response.  Afterwards, we went home to take more telephone calls.  We scoured all the related news in Hong Kong and planned the major points in the next day's actions ... we were exhausted mentally and physically.

Our colleagues not at work may be watching television news and saying: this news was originally mine, but XX has to take over.  Or perhaps: I have a special interview to conduct tomorrow but I can only telephone the interviewee and ask him to understand our situation.  If I were to return to work one day and if he doesn't mind, we can complete the interview.  We were all still thinking about our work and we did not want to give up the work, but there are more important values for us to defend.  The price is never too high or too low, because it only depends on whether you think it is worth it.

(Postscript)  If you are in the eye of the storm, you don't feel the strength of the winds.  When you go away from the eye of the storm, you will then know its destructive power and how it can hurt humans.  If the storm has to come eventually, our action was just the alert warning; if the storm was less severe than predicted, then people are lucky.  Nobody creates trouble for no apparent reason.  We had no choice and we were forced into it.