Kwai Tsing dock workers strike

Dockers' strike reflects squeeze on middle class

Alan Wong says dockers already get a decent wage, but surging prices have hit them hard

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 5:39am

Their demand for safer, more humane working conditions aside, the dockworkers on strike are, in some way, a greedy bunch.

Do not be fooled by the type of work they do. Dockworkers' monthly income of about HK$20,000 - if the figure provided by the port operator is correct - is almost double the median monthly income in Hong Kong of HK$12,000. Indeed, they earn more monthly income than 70 per cent of all workers in the city, according to the 2011 census report.

Strikers want a 17 per cent increase in their wages. But across local industry, workers' pay is expected to rise by an average of only 4.4 per cent this year - a fraction short of the official inflation forecast of 4.5 per cent - according to a March survey by the Employers' Federation of Hong Kong.

Dockworkers and union leaders have put a spotlight on the questionable practices of the port operator and contractors. But what should equally come into focus is the hardship workers face as above-average earners in the city.

They are the often overlooked members of society who earn too much to qualify for government aid but too little to cope with the city's high property prices and rising living costs.

Earning about HK$20,000 a month, in most cases they do not qualify for subsidised housing. But private housing has been increasingly unaffordable in recent years. The ratio of housing price to income reached 13.4 last year, nearing the peak of 1997.

Despite measures to cool the market, home prices have doubled in the past four years. Low mortgage rates, robust demand from mainland Chinese buyers and a lack of land supply are all but keeping Hong Kong the most expensive place on earth to buy a home.

Finding a place to live in the city that is neither a tiny subdivided flat nor a cage is hard enough, but because of a strong renminbi and the rise in global prices, soaring food costs have become another major source of distress for the sandwich class. In local markets, the price of rice and beef, among other staple foods, has more than doubled since 2007, a recent Labour Party survey has found.

It is no wonder a recent index compiled by researchers at Shue Yan University showed that households with a monthly income of HK$10,000 to HK$20,000 felt the most miserable.

In 2007, a 36-day strike by bar benders ended with contractors offering pay increases to about HK$21,000 a month. The all-too-familiar strike at the docks should remind the government of its ineptness in keeping even middle-income-earners off the streets. It is not that workers' pay cheques are too small, it is rather that the apartments of the city come with price tags that are too big. Whose fault is that?

Alan Wong Sui-lun is a Hong Kong-based journalist