Would-be swimmers at the Victoria Park public pool left disappointed yesterday when a strike by lifeguards involved in a staffing dispute forced it to close for more than three hours.
Eleven of the pool's 30 lifeguards were scheduled for duty but eight called in sick as part of industrial action over the government's refusal to heed their demands for more manpower at public pools and beaches.
Alex Kwok Siu-kit, general secretary of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Lifeguards' Union, confirmed the no-show had been planned in advance after the Leisure and Cultural Services Department did not respond to their demands. The pool reopened shortly after 2pm when lifeguards from other pools were brought in to fill the gap.
Kwok warned of further union action if an agreement could not be reached. "The LCSD has been ignoring our repeated requests to increase staff at public pools since 2004," he said, referring to widespread staffing cuts that year which led to strikes and protests. "They have also refused to agree to our demands to increase staff at Victoria Park from 30 to 36."
He said there were just not enough people. "Lifeguards can't leave their posts to tend to other parts of the pool," he said. "The lack of manpower will directly affect citizens' safety."
Kwok said the lifeguards had planned to stage the "sickout" on April 1 but the union convinced them to engage in further negotiations. Talks with the department failed last Thursday and the action was rescheduled for yesterday, with the possibility of citywide action in the future.
A department spokesman said: "We will continue to communicate with the union on staffing arrangements … and ensure public services are not affected."
Kwok said Victoria Park was not the only public pool short of lifeguards; the number needed to increase by 20 per cent across the city. But he said hiring had been a problem as many youngsters did not find the work appealing.
The average monthly salary for a full-time lifeguard was about HK$15,000, Kwok said.
The department spokesman said the pool had been closed to ensure the safety of swimmers as there were not enough lifeguards - nine are required to be on duty at any given time. The HK$800 million pool attracts an average of 1,600 swimmers a day.