Kwai Tsing dock workers strike

The low pay, long hours and new demands facing Hong Kong's dockers

Dockers strike follows years of increasing pressures and rapid change in job uniquely affected by currents in shipping industry

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 6:47am

Since hundreds of dock workers downed tools 11 days ago at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals to press their case for a 17 per cent pay rise, their action has brought into sharp focus the dire conditions many of them have to endure daily.

The striking dockers, who are employed by contractors at the port, say their wages have been raised only once in the past 15 years and inflation is making it hard to make ends meet.

Stanley Ho Wai-hong, of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers, said their daily wages were cut from HK$1,480 in 1997 to HK$1,115 around 2003, then raised to HK$1,315 in 2011. They want the rate raised to HK$1,600.

Port operator Hongkong International Terminals (HIT) dismissed that claim, saying their pay was not lower now than a decade ago, based on its contractors' salary records.

Since the start of the strike on March 28, the action has escalated. On Thursday, more than 200 HIT crane operators began working to rule - doing only the minimum required of their contracts - descending to the ground for toilet breaks instead of relieving themselves aloft to save a half-hour trip. HIT has denied its own workers are taking industrial action.

The International Labour Organisation says the dock industry requires constant upgrading in order to meet the demands of international trade.

The sector once relied on mostly occasional and low-skilled labour, but it now requires more highly skilled workers to cope with the growing cargo volumes, increasingly sophisticated infrastructure, the UN labour rights agency says.

At the same time, dock workers are asked to be more productive and to work in shifts, while their numbers are cut.

The UN agency says it helps to tackle these challenges by dealing with two peculiarities of dock work: the need for specific protection due to safety and health hazards, and the impact of technology and international trade on their industry.

Despite its efforts, however, Hong Kong dock workers are toiling shift after shift at the container terminals without a break and for days at a time. The work has not just left them exhausted, but also hurt their private lives.

One shore checker, who is responsible for preparing containers ready to be moved onto the ships, said the hours were so long that he barely saw his son. But he had no choice - and is now divorced.

Many shore checkers are also paid by the shift and end up not going home for days. "Don't even think about a toilet break," he said. "We just do it on the spot, where we are working."