Cuts to annual leave and sent to chop down trees: Hong Kong marine workers hit out at treatment by management
Staff at city’s Marine Department accuse management of mistreating them
Staff at Hong Kong’s Marine Department on Tuesday accused the management of mistreating them, saying officials had tried to cut their annual leave and forced them to cut down trees on outlying islands.
About 15 members of the city’s marine workers’ union, part of the larger Confederation of Trade Unions, staged a protest outside the department’s offices in Central on Tuesday, demanding a meeting with the management.
Deputy Director of Marine Wong Sai-fat came out to accept a petition letter and promised to schedule a meeting with staff, but did not respond to their demands.
“Shame on the Marine Department! Open the door and meet us now!” the workers chanted before Wong emerged.
The staff had three demands. They said some workers were required to fill the more senior roles of their superiors when the latter were on leave, but differences in working hours caused problems.
For example, they said meal breaks were not calculated as part of the working hours of a works supervisor, but such periods were included in the day of an assistant inspector, a more senior role.
In the past the department had allowed staff to take this meal break benefit when acting in a more senior role, they said.
“But now the department is taking that back,” said marine union chairman Chan Yiu-kwok. “The management said those who had enjoyed the meal break benefit while in acting roles over the past five years needed to have the number of hours they took deducted from their paid leave.”
Chan said he knew of at least 15 people who needed to have leave deducted. Each would see about five days’ holiday taken away.
Another bone of contention was a claim by staff that they had been required to repair and maintain beacons on about 10 outlying islands around Hong Kong.
They said they usually needed to walk for 15 to 20 minutes to reach the beacons after arriving on the islands. About two years ago, the department stopped hiring contractors to clear trees and weeds blocking routes to the beacons.
Armed with simple equipment such as saws, department staff had been forced to cut down trees and clear weeds from pathways, they said.
Chan expressed fears that workers could be violating laws by cutting down trees. He said the management had promised the union in a meeting last year that staff would no longer have to carry out such work, but had since reneged on that promise.
The union also did not agree with the management’s decision to station a department vessel just off Hung Hom to guard a section of Victoria Harbour where the city’s rail operator has been constructing a new route linking Sha Tin in the New Territories with the downtown district of Central.
Chan said there was no need to have a vessel there around the clock banning ships from entering the area, saying it was a “waste of manpower”. The department could simply position mooring buoys there to let ships know the area was off limits.
Confederation of Trade Unions secretary general Lee Cheuk-yan said staff should have collective bargaining rights in matters deciding policy. He said the department had violated the dignity of its employees and their labour rights.
“We are not refusing to have any dialogue with you,” Wong told the union. “We will schedule a time to meet.”
The department is responsible for maintaining the safety and environmental protection of Hong Kong waters, monitoring shipping traffic and conducting search and rescue operations.
It said in a statement on Tuesday night that it had been in discussion with staff to seek a consensus on the issue of cutting down trees and clearing weeds. The department expressed “understanding” over the requests from staff on the matter.
The statement said it had already requested contractors place mooring buoys in the section of Victoria Harbour off Hung Hom, but did not state if that meant vessels would no longer be needed in the area.
The department also said it would discuss with staff the issue of leave deduction.
Meanwhile, the Civil Service Bureau said it would closely monitor how the talks between the staff and management went.