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  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 5:35am
CommentInsight & Opinion
LEADER

Time to step in on Hong Kong dock strike

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 April, 2013, 6:10pm

This city has prospered from the opening up of China, but at a cost to its natural advantage, a deep-water port, as mainland rivals have become more competitive. As a result, Shenzhen threatens to displace Hong Kong as the world's third-busiest container port, behind Shanghai and Singapore. The competition can only get tougher, which adds to the worry of the dockers' walkout over a wage dispute that has disrupted the operations of Hong Kong International Terminals, and forced traders who depend on it for supplies to think of alternatives.

So far, thankfully, the dispute has not seriously affected two prime considerations. The first is businesses almost entirely dependent on imports including transshipments and, ultimately, the whole community. The other is our priceless reputation as a free port, at home and abroad, for efficiency and reliability. If the strike drags on, there is it will raise the more serious prospect of the walkout spreading, to everyone's cost. The shadow over the city's reputation may not be easily erased, which would play into the hands of rival ports.

Video: No bathrooms and 24-hour shifts – the life of a dock workhorse

Apart from a recently introduced minimum wage for the lowest paid, pay and conditions are freely bargained according to supply and demand, a system blessed with a low level of industrial disputation that is the envy of many other places.

Generally the government has no business involving itself unless an essential service is affected; nor is there any need to. However, with serious disputes the exception, we do not have much experience of resolving them with the least possible loss and damage to the protagonists and the community at large.

The Kwai Tsing container terminal dispute may be a case in point. It quickly became bogged down in technical issues involving subcontractors and the question of who employs whom, and the status of the dockers in any negotiations.

Port operations may not be an essential service in the same sense as energy supplies, police, hospitals and so on. But in an externally oriented community, they are an essential economic service. The government has a legitimate reason to intervene to assist an early settlement.

Labour minister Matthew Cheung Kin-chung has rightly ordered officials to begin mediation before the end of the week if necessary. Talks on Wednesday with Hutchison Port Holdings Trust, to which HIT belongs, were a step in the right direction. He should not hesitate to intervene personally to bring all parties together before the dispute enters another week.

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This article is now closed to comments

hard times !
Maybe Matthew Cheung's reaction is already too late since the strike has entered the ninth day and the meeting between HIT and the workers on strikje has not yet started.It might hurt our image and function as an international container terminal !
Giwaffe
While Hong Kong's reputation as a reliable and efficient free port has clear and distinct economic and competitive advantages, this cannot be the sole, as it would appear now, consideration for any world class city. We must all remember that Hong Kong's reputation, and indeed our lives, is built at the cost of and on the backs of laborers such as port workers who toil in the most despicable conditions, for which there is no excuse on the part of the port operator, its contractors, and subcontractors. As the ultimate beneficiary of port operations, I find it revolting to the extreme that HIT has not demonstrated its corporate social responsibility and instead chosen to defer to its contractors.
More importantly, the plight of the port workers is like an alarm klaxon blaring at the deficit of world class labor regulations to protect all workers of Hong Kong. How can 48 hour shifts, even 24 hour shifts, be even remotely permissible by law? How can basic human necessities, such as meal and toilet breaks, be discouraged or disallowed? How can these workers be paid so little despite their key role in facilitating the flow of goods for which Hong Kong depends on?
If not already legislated, fundamental concepts such as 40 hour work week, 10 hour daily shift maximum mandatory, paid food and toilet breaks, increasing overtime system, statutory recognition of collective bargaining, and prohibition of replacement workers in event of strike must be expeditiously legislated as law.

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