Hong Kong dockers seek international support for their strike

Dock workers in Hong Kong called for international support for their strike against Asia’s richest billionaire. The Union of Hong Kong Dockers (UHKD) and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions on April 22 urged working-class organizations and individuals to show their solidarity with the dock workers by organizing protests at businesses owned by Hutchinson Whampoa, Ltd the operator of the Port of Hong Kong’s Hutchison International Terminal.

Hutchison Whampoa is owned by Li Ka-Shing, a billionaire, whose business empire includes retail stores, real estate, and mobile phone service.

“If possible, we hope you can organize a protest or petition to any Hutchison Whampoa-owned or invested businesses and send us pictures of the action, to shame Hutchison and to give a strong message of international solidarity to the strikers,” said Sally Choi, organizer for the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, in a message to supporters.

Members of the UHKD walked of the job on March 28 to protest low wages, the lack of safety on the job, poor working conditions, and discrimination against workers who work for employment firms that contract with Hutchison to provide so-called temporary labor at the docks.

About 2,000 dock workers and their supporters on April 22 rallied outside the Hutchison port terminals where strikers have been camping since they walked off the job. Another rally is planned for April 26 unless Hutchison Whampoa agrees to settle the issues that sparked the strike, which has interrupted services at Asia’s largest port and caused ships to be diverted to other ports.

The strikers, contract workers who number about 400, say that since 1997 their wages have declined and that they are forced to work in unsafe working conditions.

Cho Wai-kei, a striking crane operator, said that he earns about 90 Hong Kong dollars a shift less than he was earning in 1997. He also said that crane operators are forced to remain in the operating cages of their cranes for as long as 12 hours straight without a bathroom break.

“When you get into that metal cage, there’s no difference between you and a dog,” Cho said.

The dock workers are also protesting the lower pay that contract workers receive for doing the same work as those hired directly by Hutchison Whampoa.

“As for the crane drivers, the union’s only hope is that workers with the same job can earn the same wage,” said the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) in a recent public statement about the strike. “Why is it that despite having identical jobs, workers hired directly by the company make twice as much as those hired by subcontractors and, unlike the latter, are given time to eat, go to the bathroom and rest? Why have all subcontracted workers been stripped of these basic rights?”

According to HKCTU, contract crane operators earn between 50 percent to 150 percent less than permanent crane operators and work on average 312 hours per month  while permanent crane operators work 173 hours per month.

Hutchison Whampoa and its subcontractors have broken off negotiations with the strikers and their union, but  there is mounting political pressure for them to settle the strike. According to The Standard, strikers met with Hong Kong’s Secretary of Labor and Welfare on April 22, who subsequently issued a statement indicating that the government may try to mediate that dispute.

“The government has to be impartial and seek consensus between both parties in order to help them rebuild mutual trust,” said Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, secretary of Labor and Welfare. “So we should not comment on any remarks (that the strikers made after the meeting). It is hard to predict (when the strike will be resolved), but both sides should express sincerity and restart negotiations.”

Stanley Ho Wai-hong, a spokesperson for the dockers’ union, told The Standard that at a recent meeting, workers had agreed to adjust their demands but that the adjusted wage increase they are seeking is still in the double digits.

Ho said that the strikers are prepared to continue their strike and that more protests should be expected between now and Labor Day, which in Hong Kong is May 1.