Dock workers in Hong Kong are into their third week on strike, demanding their first pay rise in 15 years and an end to horrific exploitation.
Around 450 crane operators, checkers and container lashers employed by six outsourcing companies hope to force the employers to address health and safety conditions and end draining 12-hour shifts where workers are even denied toilet breaks.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s busiest and most efficient shipping container terminals, connecting Chinese exporters with markets in the US, Europe and the rest of Asia. Port operator Hongkong International Terminals said the strike was costing it $600,000 a day.
Its owner, Li Ka-Shing, is the richest man in Hong Kong and the whole of Asia with a fortune of $30 billion. The strike has become a symbol of the increasing inequality and cost of living pressures in Hong Kong and attracted widespread support.
Workers at the port suffer long working hours and constant pressure. “I have worked on the crane for two years and developed near constant neck and back pain”, Hill, who normally works 16-hour shifts, told Solidarity.
“If you want to see a doctor you need to bring back a sick note, but the company won’t pay for any medical costs.”
Mr. Hong has worked here for nine years as a crane operator: “We are under constant pressure to work faster. We have to pull our meals up with a string and eat it while navigating the crane with elbows. The maintenance of the machinery is very poor and when reported, the management just ignores it”, he said.
“I had an accident once, I fell from about 4 metres. A supervisor came to take photographs, but I had to lie on the concrete for an hour before they called the ambulance.”
The strike has followed repeated attempts by the Union of Hong Kong Dockers to raise issues of working conditions and pay disparities between Hutchinson International Terminal’s (HIT) direct employees and subcontracted workers. The bosses’ disregard for the union’s concerns led the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions to call the strike on 28 March.
On the strike’s first day, 150 dockers walked off their workstations. As word of the strike spread, other subcontracted workers started slowing down operations in support, only to face harassment from management. Several crane operators who are under constant CCTV surveillance in their control cabins spoke of threats of sacking from the management who called them on their private phones.
However, the bullying tactics backfired spectacularly when these and many other workers joined the strike in the following days. The union’s firm action also inspired many non-unionised workers to join.
As the threats didn’t work, the bosses turned to the courts to get an injunction against the strike, which they received on 1 April. Strikers and their supporters were then banned from entering and blocking the entrance to Kwai Tsing container terminal. The injunction was extended on 5 April with a “restriction” that up to 80 union members be allowed to resume picketing, but only in the terminal’s car park.
I visited the strikers’ camp outside Kwai Tsing terminal on Saturday 6 April. The tent village stretches a couple hundred meters along one lane of the road leading to the terminal.
According to Mr. Leung who also came to support the workers, many in Hong Kong relate to the harsh working conditions and excessively long working hours for poor pay:
“Seven out of ten people in Hong Kong work 52 to 60 hours a week. They work hard, but still experience economic hardship. There are only a few rich who control much of Hong Kong’s economy. Lots of people resent them and see the striking dockers as heroes who stand up for their rights.”
The strike has attracted enormous solidarity in Hong Kong. The union called a demonstration where between 2000 and 3000 people from student groups, political parties, NGOs, religious groups and migrant workers’ groups came together to support the strikers.
Donations and food to sustain the strike have been pouring in, with $400,000 raised so far.
The dock workers’ stand has shown how to fight back against insecure work, long hours and low pay.
By Pavol Belina
Messages of solidarity can be sent to:
Stanley Ho Wai Hong, General Secretary, Union of Hong Kong Dockers at firstname.lastname@example.org