The grim life of a dock workhorse

Strikers talk of violence, exhaustion, safety fears … and the families they seldom get to see

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 April, 2013, 5:45am

For some dock workers, toiling shift after shift at the container terminals without a break and for days at a time has not just left them exhausted; it has also cost them their family life.

"It makes you really grumpy, and you have no choice but to vent your emotions on your family," one divorced worker said. "Sometimes that means violence."

The shore checker - who is responsible for preparing containers ready to be moved onto the ships - said the working hours were so long that he barely saw his son. But he had no choice.

"I'm the breadwinner. My 14-year-old son is already asking me when I'm going back to work," he said as heavy trucks swept past him on the road outside the terminal gates where the strikers are now stationed.

He is also angry about port operator Hongkong International Terminals forcing them out of the terminal itself. "It's dangerous here. If a truck lost control and crashed into us, the result would be unimaginable."

Many shore checkers are paid by the shift and end up not going home for days to make ends meet. "Don't even think about a toilet break - we just do it on the spot, where we are working."

The life of a crane operator - responsible for moving the containers onto ships - was little better. A Mr Ho, 45, said they often had to work two shifts in a row, each one eight to nine hours' long - an extra concern when their performance affects ship safety.

"Our supervisors always tell us to do our job faster, even when there's a storm. They're putting all the responsibility on us, and sacrificing safety," said Ho, who lives with his 90-year-old mother.

The Sars survivor said he had left the industry briefly. He returned nine years ago, only to find working conditions had become worse.

He suspected his contractor Global Stevedoring Services could be employing fewer people than the standard required by HIT. "I just find it very unfair. It's not only about money, but also the safety of workers." The company declined to comment yesterday.

Ho's colleague Chris Cheng Ka-wai, 37, said he felt a weight off his shoulders the moment he left his crane to join the strike.

"I won't turn back," he said, adding that each worker had about 40 shifts of eight to nine hours every month.

With contractors so far not entering negotiations with the strikers, he added: "I am really disappointed that the bosses still haven't turned up."

Ng Shu-ming, 52, a checker on ships for 25 years, was equally disappointed. He works in typhoons and gets no meal breaks; they eat as they work.

Ng, who has five daughters, said he had spent little time with them. "If you're talking about home, the terminal is my home. I spend hours and hours here," he said. "The contractors should at least tell us what's on their mind. But they don't even dare to come out and talk to us."