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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 5:50pm

Kwai Tsing dock workers strike

On March 28, 2013, dock workers at Kwai Tsing took industrial action seeking a 17 per cent pay rise. The port is operated by Hongkong International Terminals (HIT).

CommentInsight & Opinion

HIT must come to the negotiating table over dockers' pay dispute

Geoffrey Crothall says the HIT port workers' strike can be resolved, if the company is willing to negotiate with the dockers' union representatives on behalf of its contractors

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 April, 2013, 3:36am

There is nothing inherently difficult about resolving labour disputes. If the two sides in the dispute are willing to talk and a mechanism exists to facilitate those talks, then there is every chance an agreement can be reached.

The problem with the Hong Kong dock workers' pay dispute is that neither of those two preconditions is in place. The key player in the dispute, Hongkong International Terminals (HIT) has resolutely refused to engage in talks with the workers and their trade union representatives. HIT and its managing director, Gerry Yim Lui-fai, claim the strike has nothing to do with the company and should be resolved by the contractors who technically employ the workers. The contractors, meanwhile, have been reluctant to talk to the trade union, the one body that is best placed to represent the workers and negotiate a deal with management.

The workers and the trade union want to negotiate but the entrenched attitudes of management at HIT and the labyrinthine network of contractors and sub- contractors that it created has effectively nullified any effective channels of communication. Going on strike was the only option left for workers who had seen their pay stagnate over the past decade as the cost of living escalated rapidly.

The reason why Hong Kong's container ports have layer upon layer of contractors is simple, and it has nothing to do with efficiency or the smooth operation of the port. By parcelling up the dock workers in a network of different contractors, management hopes to divide and rule, and snuff out any protest before it can escalate.

That tactic may work for a while but it has clearly failed this time. Not only has the solidarity of the workers inside the port increased, as more and more dockers join the strike, they have also garnered support from other workers such as the truck drivers and ordinary members of the public, raising HK$1.4 million in donations in just the first week of the strike.

Sooner or later, Yim and HIT are going to have to accept reality and talk to the workers and their union representatives. Indeed, this is precisely what managers at Shenzhen's container ports did when a wave of strikes hit the ports of Yantian and Shekou six years ago.

The most noteworthy incident at that time occurred in April 2007 when more than 300 crane operators at the Yantian International Container Terminals (which is part of the Hutchison Port Holdings Trust, along with HIT) went out on strike demanding better pay and working conditions. The workers also demanded the right to elect their own trade union representatives and it was those representatives who eventually negotiated a collective agreement on wages and working conditions with the Yantian management.

At that time, Shenzhen container throughput stood at 21 million teu (20-foot equivalent units) compared with nearly 24 million teu in Hong Kong. Shenzhen not only survived the strikes, it continued to develop and expand and eventually overtook Hong Kong.

If Yim is really concerned with Hong Kong's reputation as one of the world's leading ports, he should take a look at how the port that has just overtaken Hong Kong in the global rankings handles labour disputes and understand that, as I noted at the outset, it really is not that difficult.

Even if there is huge gap between what the workers want and what the employer is willing to give, as is currently the case in this dispute, a simple willingness to negotiate can go a very long way. If HIT is willing to stop the pretence that it has nothing to do with the dispute and recognise the trade union as an equal partner in negotiations over pay and working conditions, that will immediately reduce tensions and lay the groundwork for collective bargaining.

HIT does not even have to get rid of the contractor system, although this would help; it simply has to act as the negotiator on behalf of the contractors, just as the union negotiates on behalf of the workers.

Once good faith and a willingness to enter into meaningful discussions are established, there is a good chance the dockers will return to work sooner rather than later. Most employees would rather be at work while their union negotiates on their behalf, instead of sitting on a picket line in the pouring rain. Rest assured, if HIT fails in its commitment to negotiate or reneges on any agreements made between the two parties, the workers will be out on strike again and even more determined than ever.

Hong Kong's dock workers play a crucial role in maintaining the economic health and vibrancy of the city. They deserve a decent wage; they deserve to work reasonable hours in a safe environment; and they deserve an employer who treats them with respect and who is willing to listen to them when they voice their grievances. Currently they have none of the above and it is up to HIT to make amends.

Geoffrey Crothall is director of communications at China Labour Bulletin


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This article is now closed to comments

Well said, Geoffrey. Thank you.
I'm not generally pro-trade unions, as they tend to become self-serving organisms when they grow too powerful, but in this case there is only the union to help workers defenseless against an unscrupulous, conspiratorial employer and its cohorts. They should be supported against bosses who squeeze and bully just because they can.
This labour dispute deserves to escalate and spread to other industries because big business in Hong Kong has for far too long ridden roughshod over the backs of the city’s lowest paid.
There are many other jobs, notably in the security and catering trades, where the employees are exploited; forced to work 12 hour-shifts six days a week at the minimum rates of pay. There are increasing calls for reform but industry rejects this as “unaffordable”, while the Government just turns a deaf ear to the issue. Perhaps this will be a wake call for all?
The need for standard working hours and control of excessive overtime for low paid workers is overwhelming. The additional cost is affordable........ it can be born by landlords by charging lower rents.
Its time for Government intervention.
Contractors' only customer is HIT and basically these contractors will have no say at all. If HIT wants to negotiate, it can easily push the contractors to negotiate. in fact, I am sure HIt have a clause in the contract to ensure the contractors are to provide adequate resource otherwise HIT can terminate the contract as a protection. The decision maker is still HIT as simple as that. As HIT's final boss is Mr. Li, he is the one who refuse to negotiate.
What amaze me is there are almost no legco members coming out to talk about the issue and this is a huge issue.
hard times !
Geoffrey has said rightlly in his article's last paragraph that our dock workers (on strike now) play a crucial role in maintaining the economic health and virbrancy of the city. They really deserve a decent wage (which has just been adjusted only ONCE in the past 15 years), they deserve to work reasonable hours in a safe environment, and they also deserve an employer (whether the irresponsible HIT owned by the Superman in town or the contractors hired by HIT which number over 100 so as to divide and rule to avoid any protests or strikes ) who treats them with respect and who is willing to listen to them when they voice their grievances. Currently they have none of the above and it is up to HIT (under Hutchison Whampoa which is owned by Cheung Kong Industries) to make amends.Just wait and see how far this Li family can go---maybe from now on the beginning of their doomsday has started---Hongkongers no longer pay them any respect. Instead we (at least most of us) will start boycott any Li's businesses here:Park'n Shop, Watson's, Fortress and of course,Cheung Kong and Hutchison Whampoa's stocks on market too !
hard times !
Geoffrey has rightly pointed out that once good faith and a willingness to enter into meaningful discussions (of course should be arranged by our Labour Bureau or Labour Dept.),, there is a good chance the dockers (on strike) will return to work sooner rather than later. Most employees in the territory would rather be at work while their union negotiates on their behalf, instead of sitting on a picket line in the pouring rain or scorching sun. It is definitely sure that the strike workers will continue their protest/strike until the big boss---HIT starts to negotiate a proper agreement between the contractors and these determined workers. Just wait and see how strong the support the workers get from most Hongkongers with conscience.
ahh, but the truth is not being reported...
None of these legco members want to challenge 'Supernan"
Deleted due to typing error. Editor please remove.


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