Dockers' strike falls flat over unions' lack of unity
Differences between the two big groups hinder dockers from getting their pay rise
As the strike drags on at Kwai Tsing, it appears the dockers are struggling to get union support for their fight for more pay - revealing the fractured state of the city's two key labour rights groups.
Academics say the main problem is a clash of political ideology between the Beijing-loyal Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and the democrat-leaning Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU).
This, they say, was demonstrated by the FTU's reluctance to back the dockers' strike because it was organised by the CTU.
The FTU was set up in 1948 and is an umbrella group for 248 smaller unions with a combined membership of about 370,000 workers. The CTU was formed more recently - in 1990 - and has about 80 unions under its banner, together representing about 170,000 workers.
Of the city's working population, estimated at about 3.8 million, approximately one in every six workers belongs to at least one of the two unions. This compares with the United States, where only one in 10 workers belonged to a union last year.
"One problem is that the FTU and CTU are seldom united to fight for labour rights," said Dr Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor in the Polytechnic University's department of applied social sciences.
"And because the FTU leaders have a close relationship with the pro-Beijing camp, any protest is usually kept as tame as possible. The CTU alone isn't powerful enough."
FTU lawmaker Wong Kwok-hing earlier told the South China Morning Post that the FTU had largely stayed out of the dock workers' strike because it had been organised by the CTU.
Professor Wong Hung, an associate professor with the Chinese University's department of social work, said there was a general apathy towards unionism in Hong Kong. "Often, people join a union just to take advantage of members-only perks," he said. "Few of them join because they want to fight for better conditions."
Wong said both the unions put more resources into getting their members into the Legislative Council than in "building relations with the workers".
The lack of unity was a deterrent for some workers, according to former FTU legislator Ip Wai-ming. He said some of them did not want to get involved in the dock strike because they feared there would be trouble - and without a united front, they might not get what they wanted.
Recent industrial disputes in the city included a 36-day strike in 2007, one of the city's longest. About 600 construction site bar benders walked off the job after negotiations on a pay rise stalled. Led by the CTU, the workers were seeking HK$900 for a work day of eight hours and 15 minutes. They eventually settled for HK$860 for eight hours.
In July last year, Watsons Water delivery workers went on strike for 21/2 days, but they returned to work after the company promised to address a staff shortage and issues over outsourcing of their work.
And late last year, Cathay Pacific avoided threatened industrial action by its cabin crew after a compromise was reached with the union, which agreed not to pursue a pay rise above the offered rate, while management said it would improve shift practices.