Kwai Tsing dock workers strike

Give dockworkers a decent, living wage

Philip Yeung says the modest demand of the striking workers brings home the awful truth that, for too many, wages just aren't enough to live on

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 3:18am

At first blush, the dockworkers' strike is of no concern to those of us who are card-carrying members of the coffee-drinking, French-movie-watching middle class. But this conflict is a tragic parable of a larger-than-life struggle that reflects what kind of society we have become.

Here is how ridiculous the situation is. These workers - whose salaries have stood still since 2003 while prices rise year by year - are fighting for a 20 per cent increase, to bring their pay back to pre-handover levels.

And most preposterous of all, we are told that there is no way of knowing who is legally responsible for their plight. This opaque structure is a shameful indictment against this open world city.

At least elsewhere, no matter how oppressive or backward the labour legislation, workers know who their bosses are, or who they are facing across the negotiating table. Here, it is like a puppet show. You don't know who is pulling the strings.

Actually, we know who the big boss is, but he chooses to hide behind layers of subcontractors. Hong Kong employers are spoiled. The city is virtually free of antagonistic union activities. But the crafty big bosses are not satisfied with their absolute control of their business. They have designed a system that allows them to wash their hands of their de facto employees.

As I see it, subcontracting is a vicious and malignant form of modern-day slavery. If you doubt this, just check out the toilet cleaners in the Kowloon Tong MTR station, operated by one of Hong Kong's most profitable companies. There, they are cooped up eight hours a day, hired by a subcontractor and paid the minimum wage.

We are told Hong Kong is the world's freest economy. For unprotected workers, it means that, in their largely unregulated industry, their bosses are free to exploit them anyway they choose. The label of having maximum economic freedom applies exclusively to owners of big business, who are constrained only by their own conscience. If they have none, they can become purveyors of misery.

Whatever happened to the days when labour was properly rewarded and remuneration was proportionate to contribution; when there was equality in poverty and equality of opportunity? Ironically, that was how Li Ka-shing climbed out of his grinding poverty and reached the zenith of success. Why is he now denying others the same chance?

If we remain on the sidelines, unmoved and unconcerned, we are condoning man's cruelty to man, an asymmetrical Darwinian struggle of the most powerful and fittest against the weak and the meek.

In the past year, the term "Hong Kong's core values" has been bandied about by politicians and their ilk. In this fight, it is no longer an academic debate. This fight is about restoring one of our most cherished values as a free society: the right to a decent living wage for those who uphold their end of the bargain in the employer-employee relationship.

At a time like this, we must ask the fat-cat bosses: How much is enough? As for Li, he ought to remember that you can't take it with you.

Philip Yeung is a senior communication manager at a Hong Kong university.