The moment Stanley Ho Wai-hong stepped out of the taxi into the dirty air at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals, memories of last year’s 40-day dock strike came flooding back.
“I am so overwhelmed with emotions right now. This road used to be teeming with the tents we set up,” the general secretary of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers said.
“Can you imagine that we are already in the 21st century and yet some people still work in such a terrible environment?”
Take a look back at the dock strike:
It was partly the deplorable workplace conditions, coupled with low wages, that drove hundreds of dockers to stage what would become one of the longest walkouts in the history of the city. And with little changed, Ho says a second strike this year may be hard to avoid.
Hongkongers were first awakened to their plight on March 28 last year, when more than 100 workers hired by contractors under tycoon Li Ka-shing’s port operator Hongkong International Terminals (HIT) downed tools to demand a 20 per cent pay rise.
Some said they were paid HK$1,456 for a 24-hour shift in 1995. Salaries dipped to HK$1,150 in 1996 on the back of an economic downturn and never quite recovered, increasing to only HK$1,315 in 2011.
The public heard about the raw deal they were getting – shifts of 12 to 24 hours for about HK$18,000 a month, no time for lunch or breaks and, for some, having to carry a bucket around in order to relieve themselves.
Veteran Australian unionist Joe Deakin described their daily ordeal as a “living hell”. The worst off were the crane operators, who had to turn their crane control rooms into makeshift toilets because of the long minutes it would take to get off the crane and find a toilet – a scarcity at the terminals back then.
They urinated and defecated on newspapers, they said, then threw the bundle of waste off the crane when they were finished.
The stevedores’ complaints tugged at the heartstrings of Hongkongers. Despite inclement weather, more dockers and people from all walks of life joined them as the action wore on. Some said they had thought of giving up, but stuck it out because they were touched by the support.
At its peak, the protest drew 500 dockers and thousands of supporters. The strikers eventually settled for a 9.8 per cent pay rise.
One year on, HIT and its contractors had made improvements to the working conditions. But the measures are definitely not enough, Ho said.
Dockers now get a one-hour lunch and are free to visit the toilet whenever they need to. Chairs inside the crane control rooms have also been replaced with ones that can better support their spines.
And verbal abuse no longer came with the job, Ho said.
“Back then, when their supervisors gave orders through the walkie-talkie, they were always full of swear words. But it’s not like that now.”
But the long hours remain. Crane operators still work 12-hour shifts, while the rest toil for 24 hours at a stretch.
“HIT is only investing in machinery and is not hiring more dockers,” Ho said. “Dozens had quit after the strike and manpower has been in short supply.”
Added to the stress was the occasional threat of not getting paid, where contractors targeted dockers who were active members of the strike, he said. “Many have left the terminals and become construction workers or security guards. They get breaks, tea time and, most importantly, higher pay.”
Earlier this month, HIT pledged that all dockers hired by its contractors would get pay rises surpassing the inflation rate.
But one contractor promised last year to increase pay by just 9.8 per cent this year, Ho said. Taking inflation into account, the pay rise this year should be 14 per cent – which Ho’s union is now demanding.
“At this stage I won’t reveal what we are planning … but if the contractors are not sincere enough, it is hard to avoid a second strike,” he said. “I want the workers to know that no matter what happens, the union is always with them.”