Kwai Tsing dock workers strike

New kid on the dock Stanley Ho makes strike history

Young unionist who dreamed of excitement as a 12-year-old in hospital took on big guns, armed with dockers' true grit and mum's soup

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 May, 2013, 5:24am

Before March 28, few outside the shipyards of Hong Kong had heard of Stanley Ho Wai-hong. Then the dockers walked out. It was to become one of the longest strikes in the city's history, and Stanley Ho was at its helm.

The Union of Hong Kong Dockers' general secretary and organiser of the strike appeared on television and in the newspapers every day throughout the 40-day walkout.

Ho, who turns 29 next month, said he never entertained the thought of giving up. Not when he was armed with the encouragement of strangers on the streets, a flask of his mother's home-made soup, and the respect and friendship of the dockers.

He shed tears when Asia's richest man Li Ka-shing's port operator Hongkong International Terminals won an injunction to force the dockers out of their strike base inside the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals on the fifth day of the walkout.

They weren't tears of frustration, Ho said. He was simply touched by the strikers' determination not to let the injunction beat them.

"That night, after we moved the tents from inside the terminals to outside the entrance, I chatted with the dockers while we were resting," he said.

"I cried because the dockers were very calm and collected once they knew the injunction had been granted. They told me it didn't matter. They patted me on my shoulder and told me we hadn't yet lost the fight."

Ho said his childhood experiences helped steer him towards unionism.

He was 12 when he felt an unbearable pain in his right leg one day. "My leg was very painful and the pain came from within the bone," he recalled.

It turned out to be bone cancer. "I didn't think about dying. I was too young to know what was happening," he said. "But my mother was so sad, she cried all the time. I missed a year of school for my treatment."

Since then, Ho has used a crutch to help him walk. He said he did not have many friends in secondary school as his condition prevented him from playing basketball with schoolmates.

It was during that "boring" time he spent in hospital that he decided he wanted to live a meaningful life when he grew up. "I want some colour in my life. I want to live my life to the fullest," he said.

Ho's interest in social movements and workers' rights started in his undergraduate years at Chinese University's Department of History.

The first time he took part in a social movement was when he helped his friends at the university's Christian fellowship to create a survey about introducing a statutory minimum wage in Hong Kong.

After he graduated, he took on a job as a project assistant at the Education Bureau.

"It was such a boring job that I was on Facebook all the time," he said. "Then one day, I saw a picture … that said, 'You have taken leave for a trip. But have you ever taken leave to do something right for Hong Kong?'"

The picture called on people to join a rally opposing a high-speed rail project running between Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, and Ho heeded that call.

It was during that 2009 rally and another one calling for the release of jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo that he became determined to devote himself to social movements.

In 2010, Ho joined the Confederation of Trade Unions as organising secretary, and subsequently became general secretary for the dockers' union, which is under the confederation.

He said the dockers were not a very united group of people when he first joined. The workers feared retaliatory action from contractors who employed them if they became involved in union activities.

The union had only 300 members at the time, compared with about 800 now.

It took Ho much effort to befriend the dockers - often over a beer. His efforts in building up the dockers' union meant the strike had strong support from the start. But it wasn't just the dockers who backed Ho throughout the 40-day walkout. His family and fiancée gave him the strength to carry on too, he said.

His mother put a flask of home-made soup in his bag every day, and his father visited him three times on the picket lines.

Ho wanted to express his gratitude to the 430 strikers when the walkout concluded last Monday, having ended up with a 9.8 per cent pay rise and promises of toilet breaks and meal breaks, a safer work environment and no retaliation against the strikers.

"Some of them said they half saw me as their son. I am blessed that they love me so much."

No matter what challenges lay ahead, Ho added, the dockers would have the union's full support.


Stanley Ho

Age Turns 29 in June

Education Graduated from Chinese University's Department of History

2008 to 2010: Project assistant at the Education Bureau
2010 to present: Organising secretary at the Confederation of Trade Unions; general secretary at the Union of Hong Kong Dockers

Marital status Getting married in 2015