The strike at the Kwai Tsing terminals could further jeopardise Hong Kong's ranking among the world's leading container ports, according to shippers and an industry spokesman.
Mainland rivals are already putting pressure on the city, with Shenzhen overtaking Hong Kong as the world's third-busiest port. In a move that will further boost its standing, the Hong Kong Shippers' Council yesterday advised operators and freight forwarders to divert cargo to Shenzhen if the strike at Kwai Tsing continued.
Council chairman Willy Lin Sun-mo said: "If this drags on, shippers have to look at other ports including Shenzhen and [Guangzhou]. If the strike continues, it will have a very negative impact on Hong Kong as a logistics centre."
In the first two months of this year - before the strike began last Thursday - container throughput at Shenzhen increased 6 per cent to 3.53 million 20ft equivalent units (TEUs), the standard size of a container. Meanwhile, Hong Kong's tally fell 4.3 per cent to 3.48 million TEUs, making it the fourth busiest port.
Yesterday evening, about 450 dockers and hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Kwai Tsing container terminals to push their demand for a 17 per cent pay rise.
Gerry Yim Lui-fai, managing director of Hongkong International Terminals (HIT), which is controlled by Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's richest man, said his company was losing HK$5 million a day because of the strike.
"Since it started, everyone, our company and other companies, are losers," he said. "We've lost our reputation in the international shipping business."
He said some vessels that had waited at Kwai Tsing since the strike began had since moved on to Shenzhen and Singapore. However, speaking on the picket line, Chan Chiu-wai, co-ordinator for strike organiser the Confederation of Trade Unions, argued that if the strike was damaging Hong Kong's status as a world-class port then the blame lay with HIT, which was refusing to negotiate over wages.
"If Hong Kong is really losing its reputation as an international port centre, the responsibility is on HIT. It is standing so firm on this matter and has refused our demands," Chan said.
Lin, whose organisation promotes the interests of the city's importers and exporters, said Shenzhen's ports were packed with more cargo than normal.
"Twenty years ago [Hong Kong] was the biggest terminal in the world." he said. "We are no longer the beauty queen. Competition has toughened. We have been dropping in the rankings."
Hong Kong was the world's busiest container port for more than 10 years until it was overtaken by Singapore in 2005, said Stephen Cheng Wui-yau, president of the Hong Kong Logistics Association. In 2010, Shanghai took over as number one.
"Before 2004, Hong Kong was almost the only gateway to China," Cheng said. "Now, Hong Kong is not the only gateway, as China has developed its ports."
In 1997, Shenzhen's container throughput was roughly one million TEUs, compared with Hong Kong - then the world's busiest container port - with more than 14 million TEUs, according to Hong Kong government data.
"We need to be aware of the rapid changes ahead," Cheng said. "We can't be complacent. We have to think of strategies."