The conflict between port operator Hongkong International Terminals (HIT) and dock workers deepened yesterday as confusion arose over who employs whom.
HIT was standing by its claim that it had nothing to do with the employment of contract workers, whose strike is now entering its second week. But unions countered with information they said showed otherwise.
This came as 500 dockers who are directly employed by HIT were planning to join the strike. That would take the number of strikers close to 1,000, or 45 per cent of staff working at the section of the port operated by HIT.
Labour minister Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said he had met managers at Hutchison Port Holdings Trust (HPH Trust), to which HIT belongs, yesterday. The Labour Department would start mediation in the next two days, he said.
Workers yesterday criticised HIT for evading questions on its role in contracting out employment after managing director Gerry Yim Lui-fai was found to be a director of Sakoma - a subsidiary of HPH Trust and the name written in the contractor field of some workers' staff cards.
Workers who account for more than half of the strikers said they were employed by contractor Everbest. But they understood Everbest and Sakoma to be one and the same.
Yim denied that, saying Sakoma appeared on the staff cards due to a "clerical error".
He said HIT would take legal action against Next Magazine, which had said that Sakoma and Everbest were one company and that HIT ultimately employed its workers directly.
Next Magazine was standing by its reports last night.
In the face of union demands to bring HIT to the negotiating table, the port operator has stressed over the past week that it was not an employer of the strikers and had no role in any talks.
Yim said yesterday that neither HIT nor any of its subsidiaries were among the "external contractors" at the port, which directly employed the strikers.
Sakoma was only a "contracting unit" set up to sign service contracts with these "external contractors", but this duty had been handed over to Hutchison Logistics earlier this year, he said.
"The correction [on the staff cards] had not been made for a long time and has resulted in such misleading work permits. But it does not mean [the permit holder] is on our staff," he said, adding it was only for identification purposes at the entrance.
Strike organiser Chan Chiu-wai of the Confederation of Trade Unions disputed Yim's explanation. "How could such a big company make a mistake on the work permit? … He will need to show us the proof that Sakoma is not the contractor," he said.
According to the Companies Registry, Sakoma's major shareholder is Asia Port Services, an HPH Trust member. Its directors are Yim; Hutchison Whampoa's group finance director, Frank John Sixt; HPH deputy group managing director Eric Ip Sing-chi; chief finance officer of HPH Ivor Chow; and Cheung Sai-wai, a director of Asia Port Services.
Sakoma was set up as Wide Good Limited in 1988. Mid-Stream Holdings, also belonging to Asia Port Services, bought most of its shares in 1992. In 1995, the names of Ip and HPH managing director John Meredith appeared on the list of directors.
Workers said the firm took over another contractor in 1996 and their wages had since fallen.
Lee Cheuk-yan, lawmaker of the CTU, questioned if HIT had a conflict of interest in outsourcing work via subsidiary Sakoma.
An HIT spokesman said it was "industry practice" to outsource contracts this way.
HIT did not respond by 6pm to an ultimatum from a union for 500 of the 1,500 workers it directly hires to raise overtime pay.
In response, the HIT Group Employees General Union last night called for a work-to-rule from midnight.
It also warned of the possibility of further action.