A government pledge to speed up infrastructure projects triggered the action by metalworkers, who saw it as a chance to demand more money after going years without a pay rise, a union leader said yesterday.
Lam Kwok-ning, secretary of the Construction Industry Employees General Union, said among construction workers, metalworkers had suffered the most since the handover because, unlike electricians and pipe menders, who could find work in flats and offices, they could only find jobs on construction sites.
According to Census and Statistics figures, the daily wage of metalworkers on public sites dwindled from a peak of HK$1,309 a day in 2002 to HK$1,135 this year.
But variations were greater in the private sector and among different types of workers, Mr Lam said.
'Most of them are paid between HK$700 and HK$800 a day - some can go as low as HK$500,' he said.
Once a contractor, Mr Lam said it was the employers, not the workers, who had proposed the pay rise.
'A few private projects are starting later this year,' he said.
'In view of the surging demand for metalworkers, employers want to standardise their wages to prevent a high mobility among workers who opt for the highest-paying jobs. But workers see this as a chance to bargain.'
Further complicating the matter is the conflict among the 30-odd bar-bending contractors in the city, some of whom would be happy to see a rise in wages as it would raise costs for the lowest bidders for contracts.
The chairman of the Hong Kong Construction Industry Bar-Bending Workers' Union, Luk Kwan-ngai, said all contractors had slashed wages in recent years in order to push down their bidding prices for contracts.
Most of the cuts had fallen on metalworkers, whose jobs were confined to sites. But demand for metalworkers is about to increase. Centaline Property Agency research chief Wong Leung-sing said a number of railway and public works were planned.
'The sites above Tuen Mun West Rail station and Tseung Kwan O are already sold to Sun Hung Kai, plus the West Island Line, new government headquarters at Tamar, the Sha Tin-Central Rail Link and Regional Express are expected to start in the next few years,' he said.
'These are where the money lies. The metalworkers see this and they want a piece of it.'
Workers have vowed to continue the strike until employers meet them again for talks. They want a daily wage of HK$950 for an eight-hour day.