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  • Dec 25, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

HIT and Hutchison Whampoa have a duty of care to contract workers

Lee Cheuk-yan says taking workers' demands for job dignity and reasonable pay to HIT and Hutchison Whampoa - the ultimate decision-makers - is in line with international practice

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 3:45am

The dockworkers' bitter strike has lasted for more than a month. The major obstacle to a swift and effective dispute settlement is the reluctance of Hongkong International Terminals (HIT) to observe international labour standards and to take responsibility for the well-being of dockers working at its ports. Instead of coming to the negotiating table, HIT and its parent company Hutchison Whampoa have run a smear campaign, accusing the union that is organising the strike of political grandstanding.

Only a fool and corporate fat cats would believe that striking dockers, who have put their jobs on the line against the richest man in Asia, are simply incited by a self-seeking politician. If the management at HIT and Hutchison Whampoa dare to look at dockers' appalling work conditions, they would understand why the workers are so determined to press their case.

Striking dockers are paid less now than they were in 1995. Adjusted for inflation, their hourly wage is now some 20 per cent below that of 18 years ago. Stevedores are often asked to work three eight-hour shifts in one go, and they even have to work up to 72 hours continuously during peak seasons. Crane operators work 12-hour shifts, and sometimes 24-hour shifts, in cabins 80 feet above the ground. They are not given proper meal and toilet breaks, and have to eat and urinate in the cranes.

Dockers work in hazardous conditions, and face many potential dangers, such as possible falls from heights, injuries from falling objects, repetitive strain injuries, hearing impairment and respiratory diseases. Work-related injuries and cases of occupational disease are seriously under-reported. Workers claim they are intimidated by their employers and threatened with dismissal if they report cases to the Labour Department.

HIT and Hutchison Whampoa try to distance themselves from any shameful exploitation by claiming that striking dockers are employed by independent contracting companies and do not work directly for HIT. But well-established labour standards are such that while jobs can be outsourced, corporate responsibility cannot.

More often than not, contractual employers do not hold the ultimate decision-making power in determining terms and conditions of work, and are therefore not the appropriate parties to negotiate with. The International Labour Organisation contends that involving the "principal" employers in negotiation is a prerequisite for any meaningful collective bargaining, and this approach is in line with international labour conventions.

The fact that HIT contributes less than 1 per cent to Hutchison Whampoa's overall profit is no excuse for evading corporate responsibility. HIT is part of Hutchison Port Holdings Trust, whose trustee manager is Hutchison Port Holdings Management Pte Limited (HPHM), a wholly owned subsidiary of Hutchison Whampoa. HPHM's board chairman is Hutchison Whampoa's managing director Canning Fok Kin-ning, and its chief executive officer is Gerry Yim Lui-fai, managing director of HIT.

Hutchison Whampoa is hard put to argue it has no bearing on the welfare of workers at HIT's ports. In fact, HIT has taken a leading role in determining subcontracted workers' pay and conditions. Yim held a meeting with HIT's subcontractors in late March, and announced a 5 per cent wage rise effective from July. Strikers' and supporters' calls for the intervention of Hutchison Whampoa's chairman Li Ka-shing, to bring HIT to the negotiating table, are therefore perfectly justified.

Workers' demand for a pay rise of about 20 per cent is not unreasonable. This only represents the compensation for 18 years of inflation that has eroded their spending power. And HIT can easily afford to pay subcontracted workers a decent wage. Last year, the ratio of HPH Trust's pre-tax operating profit to business receipts was 32 per cent. The workers' pay demand amounts to less than 1 per cent of revenue generated from HPH Trust's Hong Kong operations, which stood at HK$5.7 billion last year.

The dock strike has attracted wide community support. Camps have been set up outside the dock gate and Hutchison Whampoa's headquarters, with people bringing food, clothes, shelter and other necessities. A solidarity fund has also raised more than HK$8 million, enabling strikers to continue their fight for dignity.

This strong support reflects the public's fury at corporate excess and the city's widening inequality. Hong Kong's economy is dominated by a handful of conglomerates. People feel exploited in all aspects of their lives. Through supporting the dockers, people can voice their anger at the big corporations and monopolies.

A protracted dispute is the last thing the striking dockworkers want. They may lose their jobs if more and more transshipment cargoes are rerouted to ports in southeast China. The one who certainly will not lose out is Li Ka-shing. His conglomerate also operates in ports across the border, including Shenzhen's Yantian International Container Terminals, one of the main beneficiaries of the current traffic diversion from HIT. This may explain why HIT and Hutchison Whampoa have taken a tough bargaining stance.

Lee Cheuk-yan is general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions


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I agree with the economy theory but I think HK is ripping off the blue collar labor force. Within the biz of HiT, I am sure they are profitable and paying decent salaries to their white collar staff but why can't they pay a bit better to the blue collar or shift the costs more to the hard work blue collar labor? . hIT Australia can afford to pay A$80k a year minimum to its docker and I'm sure they are not paying a lot more than 80k to its office worker. They did it in a fairer pay. But in Hk, we just never respect people using their hands to make a living.
What is the debating point here? Working environment conditions or salary? I agree that environment issues should be HIT's responsibilities but salaries should be a mixture of economic reasons as well as humane reasons. What LEE Cheuk Yan constantly ignores is the economic reasoning. He doesnt understand that the industry is far from in best health and just because LKS is rich doesnt necessarily mean he has to fork out money to subsidize the workers. This is business, not charity, everyone who has been a business knows how hard to keep a business floating during bad times. LCY's one sided understanding of the picture is discomforting.
If you point your finger to HK as a whole I agree. But then again, this is really more or less a generic problem differing by the extent between different countries. Every boss operates by more or less the same mentality to a large degree. However, I disagree that this is unique to HIT. Moreover, the white collars you refer are also too general. Other than the top class of white collars in HIT in the likes of Canning FOK, the rest suffer to a large extent the same problem of slow salary increase in the face of inflation. First, inflation is widely caused by US quantitative easing, so if we want to complain, we should complain to Obama. Second, if we really want to solve things from the root, we really need to think about how to enhance our economy so that more people can benefit. Regardless what people think, i can tell you honestly HK's economy is far from ok. W/o China, I am afraid, we will be 10 times worst. LEE Cheuk Yan has a more important role to play than just going on streets. He should be more intellectual and think also in the broader pic of overall economy and finding a resolution with the bosses. Another side fact is that even the graduates nowadays earn more or less the same as the salaries many years ago. This depicts a story of worsening competitiveness not of more slave driving bosses. Solve the economic problem first, then, start analysing if the boss is indeed unfairly treating the workers.
Property price is killing most of the competitors of Hk. Accusing QE is yes or no. QE has little effect in US in terms of housing price I do think it does a bit on Hk but these QE money is not coming to HK speculating on property. The money is mainly from China and credit in China is huge too in terms of % of china GDP. I am sure a lot of money laundry coming from china buying by cash, Hk economy is terrible as we are relying too much in china and our price is too high and Hk has nothing innovative rather than property. Having said that, many people in Hk are overpaid and causing problem to the general. This group includes developers, bankers, and civil servants. The later responsible for the high land policy as we have to support avery expensive civil servant team, the problem won't be solved until we trim off say at least 30% of civil servants and government expenses and reduce the cost of land. But this is impossible as this will upset too many people and the home owners.
It is plain and simple that HIT, the owner of the terminal, takes ultimate responsibility to negotiate with the labor union(s) representing the dock workers (hopefully) with both sides acting in good faith. If unsettled, the government may be the last resort to "arbitrate" making the facts known to the public who as members of an open society has the right to know the truths concerning working hours and conditions of the dock workers - and even profitability of HIT. After-all, cargo terminals are quasi-public utilities that in many countries are regulated if not run by the local government.


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