Pay aside, first ensure decent conditions for port workers

Mike Rowse says labour officials can't shirk their responsibility

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 11:39am

I often think that Pontius Pilate gets an unfair rap at around this time of year, as new generations of children are taught that he was largely to blame for the crucifixion of Christ, an event we now celebrate as Easter. Wasn't he just a governor sent to keep order in a rebellious foreign state? Wasn't he bound to free Barabbas instead of Jesus when the mob demanded it, literally washing his hands in the process to deny responsibility?

Even now, we still use the expression to "wash one's hands of something" in a critical way.

This whimsical thought is my back-door entrance to the subject of the dockworkers strike at container terminals operated by Hongkong International Terminals (HIT).

There is one straightforward aspect to the dispute: the workers want a pay rise, claiming that they haven't had one for years. That part of their demand will no doubt be settled in the usual commercial way.

But some other aspects are rather odd. For example, only a minority of those working on the docks are direct hires of HIT itself. They are not on strike. The majority are the employees of four different subcontractors, and these are the ones who have downed tools.

Next comes the involvement of two different trade union umbrella organisations. One is the Federation of Trade Unions, which represents those not on strike. One is the Confederation of Trade Unions, which represents those who are.

Labour secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung felt obliged to hold crisis talks with both, in separate sessions, together with some of the employers. Other contractors refused to attend, while HIT itself would only come as an observer.

In fairness, it should be said that Cheung's tactics may not be as crazy as they first seem. If the CTU secured better terms for its members by striking, the FTU would no doubt instantly become more militant. But in the middle of all this confusion, there was one aspect of the dispute that stood out: the working conditions of the crane operators come from another planet. Some are required to work in a cabin high up on a tower for 12 hours non-stop. They get no meal break so they take food and drink up with them. This begs the question: where and how do you go to the toilet and, when you have finished, wash your hands?

Thanks to our friends in the local media, we now have answers and, in some cases, photos as evidence.

In the 21st century, in Asia's "world city", working men are expected to urinate out of the window directly into the harbour far below. And if necessary they defecate on newspaper in the corner of the cabin, wrap it up, and dispose of the parcel either immediately out of the window or later.

It is astonishing that honest working men feel obliged to tolerate such conditions. It is equally astonishing that purportedly responsible employers seek to impose such conditions on their employees.

And it is outrageous that the Labour Department, whose job it is to secure a safe working environment, has stood aside while these practices endured for decades. Are the companies involved so powerful that no one dare stand up to them?

Help may be at hand. Health secretary Dr Ko Wing-man comes across as a no-nonsense practical action man. Given all the concern about the threats to community health, especially with H7N9 hanging over us, could his staff simply issue a directive that proper hand-washing arrangements be put in place in all workplaces, on pain of closure. And if the crane operators are coming down to ground level to wash their hands properly, they may as well come down a few minutes earlier to use proper toilets first.

More hand-washing, and less washing of hands, all in one fell swoop.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.