Kwai Tsing dock workers strike

Dockers' plight is living hell: unionist

Australian labour rights veteran calls the work conditions at the port hit by strikers shocking and far below what is standard in his country

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 April, 2013, 5:30am

When veteran Australian unionist Joe Deakin found out about the working conditions Hong Kong dockers had to endure, he described it as a "living hell".

Deakin, assistant branch secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, flew to Hong Kong on Monday with seven other unionists to show support for the 450 striking dockers.

"The conditions in the terminals here are just shocking," said Deakin, who visited the Kwai Tsing container terminals during his stay. "It is a living hell for these people, and that is why they have had enough."

The conditions in the terminals here are just shocking. It is a living hell for these people, and that is why they have had enough
Australian unionist Joe Deakin

Deakin said dockers were paid much more in Australia and worked shorter shifts.

He said the country's 5,000 dockers received about A$80,000 (HK$647,000) a year, and worked an eight-hour day.

In Hong Kong, many dockers work shifts of 12 to 24 hours and make about HK$18,000 a month, or HK$216,000 a year.

Deakin said the Australian dockers rarely worked overtime. When they did, it was usually in response to an emergency, such as when a vessel caught fire once and they were paid twice the normal hourly wage.

They earned 1½ times, or twice, the normal wage for weekend work.

"When you work the afternoon shift on the weekends, you get 1½ your normal wage, but on the midnight-to-10am shift you get double time," Deakin said before he left Hong Kong on Thursday.

When Hong Kong dockers work overtime, they receive the same pay as when working regular hours.

Another unionist, Matt Purcell, has said that Hutchison, which planned to open a port in Brisbane in three weeks' time and another port in Sydney a year from now, had agreed to pay their dockers no less than what was paid by other Australian operators, indicating the salaries would be about A$80,000 a year.

Australian dockers also get 45 minutes of rest during their shift and can stop machines or equipment they are using any time when they need to use the toilet. "You just leave the machines and go to the toilet," Deakin said.

He added that the toilets in Australia's container terminals were much better equipped than those in Hong Kong. There are televisions, a lounge area, and a person is employed as a cleaner to ensure the toilets are maintained in hygienic conditions.

In comparison, there are just a few chairs and lockers in the restrooms at the Kwai Tsing container terminals, local dockers have said.

Referring to the bucket some port workers are forced to have with them in order to relieve themselves, Deakin said: "Having a bucket in one hand and lunch in the other is just disgusting."

All dockers in Australia were hired directly by the port operators, he said, unlike in Hong Kong, where many dockers are hired by contractors.

Australian dockers signed a three- to four-year agreement with the operators and received a 5 per cent pay rise every year, Deakin said.

The problem with hiring through contractors was that the operator - in this case, the Hongkong International Terminals (HIT) - could easily say any pay dispute was out of their hands.

He urged Li Ka-shing, whose Hutchison Whampoa is the parent company of HIT, to send a representative to talk with the dockers camped outside his Cheung Kong Center in Central.

As for work safety, Deakin said that in Australia a docker sat on the management board as a work safety facilitator to advise management on how to ensure safe practices were implemented. There was no such representation in Hong Kong, he noted.