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HK Dockworkers’ Strike Enters Third Week, Attracts Widespread Support

by | 14 April 2013 | 2 Comments | Last modified: 21 Apr 5:14 pm

Striking Hong Kong dockworkers and supporters march at the world’s third-busiest port. The two-week old strike has bottlenecked cargo and gained enormous public sympathy. Photo: Left 21.

Recommending two reports on this momentous action. Finally Hong Kong’s proletarian resistance is moving from the sphere of exchange and representation to the sphere of production.
(1) “Hong Kong Dockworkers Strike Attracts Huge Solidarity” by Ellen David Friedman, Labor Notes, 12 April 2012

(2) ‘“I work beside my shit. I eat beside my shit.”  Impressions from the dockworkers strike in Hong Kong‘ by Frido Wenton, Gongchao, 14 April 2013

Reposted below:


Hong Kong Dockworkers Strike Attracts Huge Solidarity

by Ellen David Friedman, Labor Notes, 12 April 2012

 Five hundred dockworkers are facing down the richest man in Hong Kong (and, according to Forbes, eighth-richest in the world) in a strike that has entered its third week and brought transport in the world’s third-busiest port to a virtual halt.

Li Ka-shing, the billionaire behind Hongkong International Terminals (HIT), controls more than 70 percent of Hong Kong’s port container traffic and oversees a vast transnational network of enterprises including the oil and gas giant Husky.

Arrayed against this financial titan often referred to as “Superman” are dockworkers exhausted by 12-hours shifts lacking even toilet breaks, surviving in one of the world’s most expensive cities on wages that haven’t risen in 15 years, and now waging a labor battle that observers are calling pivotal.

The confrontation appears to have tapped a vein of indignation against the “greed economy” and its glaring inequalities, bringing the workers broad public support.

Strikes are rare in Hong Kong, and strikes that gain this much solidarity are unprecedented in recent memory. The dockworkers represent a new level of action among the fastest growing segment of workers: subcontracted, not yet unionized, hyper-exploited.

Fifteen days into the strike, union spokespeople say not more than 20 dockers have returned to work while 120,000 containers sit untouched, ships experience delays of up to 60 hours, and daily losses of half a million U.S. dollars mount.

On the other side of the fulcrum, thousands of Hong Kong citizens have rallied to “occupy” the Kwai Tsing Port, bringing vast quantities of food, water, and funds (more than $1 million so far) to ease the strain on strikers.

Solidarity Sick-Out, Boycott

The dockers are holding firm in their demand for recognition of their newly formed Hong Kong Dockworkers Union, humane working hours, safety measures, and wage hikes of 15-20 percent. Under immense public pressure, Hong Kong’s pro-business government has had to intervene to make management negotiate.

A court injunction initially limiting strikers’ access to the docks was later amended, providing the right for 80 to picket at a time. But the sustained presence of hundreds of strikers and supporters camping out on surrounding streets has disrupted all normal flow of work, and a sympathy “sick-out” earlier in the week by port truck drivers reinforced the strike.

Meanwhile an activist student group, Left 21, has begun organizing a boycott of Li Kai-shing’s mega-supermarket chain Park and Shop, and the president of the International Federation of Transport Workers, the global organization of transport unions, traveled to Hong Kong for a solidarity event. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center is donating $5,000.

While support floods in from students, other unionists, and citizens, buoying up the strikers, the solid commitment of the dockworkers themselves is driving this piece of history. The workers organized despite differences in craft and employer (at least four major contractors supply staffing to the Kwai Tsing Port), divisions between subcontracted workers and permanent port employees, lack of formal recognition of their union, and no precedent of collective bargaining.

The dockers have no illusions about the concentrated wealth and power of their ultimate boss Li Ka-shing, but they realize that they have in their hands something no one else controls: the ability to withhold their labor.

Repercussions on the Mainland

The colonial history of Hong Kong left little in the way of labor rights, and unions are rather weak, operating with limited legal rights to bargain or represent workers. Still, both of Hong Kong’s two major union federations are playing roles in this strike.

The larger, the HKFTU, has ties to mainland China’s official labor federation, the ACFTU, and is considered pro-business and politically conservative. In this strike its lack of legitimacy among workers was further weakened by revelations that one of its leaders holds a management position in Global Stevedoring Service, one of the contractors that employ dockworkers.

HKFTU tried to funnel management’s offer of a 5 percent wage increase to a subgroup of workers, but was shamed and now seems to have retreated entirely.

The smaller federation, the HKCTU, is considered a pillar in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and has taken the lead in supporting the strike: raising funds, organizing logistics, doing PR and outreach, making demands on politicians.

The conflicts between the two Hong Kong labor federations point to implications of this strike for mainland China. Though total reintegration of Hong Kong into China is still 35 years in the future, the two economies are already thoroughly enmeshed. Because of the strike, some portion of Hong Kong ship traffic will almost certainly be re-routed to the southern mainland ports at Shenzhen or Guangzhou, where labor conditions are way below those in Hong Kong.

A strike of crane operators at the Shenzhen port several years ago was met with swift government intervention and rapid agreement to workers’ demands, in an incident believed to show the government’s determination to prevent a spread of worker militancy—not through repression but through accommodation.

Given that there are already tens of thousands of wildcat strikes annually on the mainland, rising on 30 years of wage repression and an absence of union representation, the potential for this spark of Hong Kong labor militancy to jump the straits and ignite a prairie fire on the mainland may be on the minds of China’s leaders.

Ellen David Friedman is a retired union organizer, on the Policy Committee of Labor Notes, and a Visiting Scholar at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.


“I work beside my shit. I eat beside my shit.”  Impressions from the dockworkers strike in Hong Kong

by Frido Wenton, Gongchao, 14 April 2013

As the Hong Kong dockworkers strike enters its third week, around 100 workers still camp outside the gates to Hong Kong International Terminals (HIT). 400 to 500 crane operators refuse to return to work, making them a 40 to 50 per cent majority amongst the contract workers at the docks. While the port claimed daily losses of 5 million HKD – around 500,000 euros – the strike fund stood at 3.5 million HKD last Wednesday April 10. Public support from unions, Leftist groups, students and ordinary citizens is extraordinarily high, during Hong Kong’s first larger labour struggle since the construction workers’ strikes in 2007 and 2009.

The striking workers demand a 20 per cent pay rise and improved working conditions. Salaries were slashed in the Asian Crisis and have not recovered ever since – in fact, they have fallen continuously in Hong Kong’s low wage segment. There have been conflicting reports on the current wage level, but it seems that workers earn between 13,000 and 18,000 HKD a month (1250-1700 euros) – without benefits such as social security or health insurance. With living expenses and especially real estate prices in Hong Kong ranging amongst the highest in the world, workers have to struggle hard to make a living on this basis. “I can see no future in Hong Kong. Wages have not increased for ten years. If you want to have a family here, it is a heavy burden”, explains Jeff Cheung, one of the striking workers. Jeff is a young worker in his late 20s – a minority amongst his colleagues, who are mostly in their mid-30s to 50s. In his twelve hour shift he un- and uploads about 150 containers. If his rate falls below 10 per hour, he will receive an angry call from his boss. His shift does not include lunch or toilet breaks. Workers have to relieve themselves in the crane cabin: “I work beside my shit. I eat beside my shit”, smirks Jeff in a spirit of self-irony.

Jeff worked his first job as ground personal for a large airline at Hong Kong airport, sitting at the check-in desk. He quit after a conflict with his boss, arising because Jeff had told a rude customer, who threw his passport at his face to “go fuck himself”. Taking up a job as a clerk, he also began to hate office work, feeling a lack of solidarity amongst his colleagues, who all competed for individual promotions. “Here, there are no promotions, so we are all the same. That’s why we get along to well. We often go out for drinks after work” he describes working at the docks. Despite his low pay and the intense working conditions he still likes his job: “Up in the cabin I don’t have a boss, you know. I just do my work. I take a Hifi up to the cabin and listen to some punk and metal. Actually, I like operating the crane, it’s a bit like a computer game.”

Like everyone on strike, Jeff is subcontracted by one of 5 labour agencies, between which he and his colleagues periodically change contracts. They are leased out to HIT, which is (via other sub-units) majority-controlled by Hutchison Whampoa, a large cross-sectoral conglomerate owned by Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing. Closely linked to or even part of this group are the respective labour agencies – sold, bought and resold internally, thus concealing actual ownership structures. The confusing labour relations lead to the fact that workers often do not even know that they toil for the Li Ka-Shing empire. Jeff became a crane operator a few years ago and has only learned about the actual circumstances through the strike. Hutchison on the other hand claims that there is no direct employment relation; that negotiations are thus out of the question; and that the conflict is to be handled by the labour agencies.

Jeff and his colleagues have tried multiple times to engage in negotiations with management. They elected 10 direct representatives, which form the negotiation committee, spearheaded by a communal union rep of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). The latter however has no direct connection to the striking workers, as the union represents workers in other branches of the industry but not the concerned crane operators – but is thus formally responsible. The HKCTU however seems to be a comparably progressive union, which is still relatively young and not fully bureaucratically encrusted (at least in comparison to the average eurospean and US union). It was formed as a federation of smaller independent unions in opposition to the China-friendly, corporatist Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU). On Wednesday, April 10, management of the labour agencies negotiated with the workers and HKCTU in the morning – announcing the day before that they offer a pay rise of 5 per cent – and with the FTU in the afternoon (which obviously has no legitimacy amongst the workers whatsoever). With the strike now entering its third week, negotiations have however led nowhere - either because the employer’s side did not show up at the scheduled meetings or because the offers were unacceptable.

Meanwhile, the strike, the camp and the multitude of support actions go on. For the first two weeks of the strike, Jeff claims, “of 10 cranes, only 2 were working”. Initially, the subcontracted workers – the minority of formal workers does not support the strike – had occupied the space inside the terminal and blocked operations. An injunction by the city government forced them out of the terminal compound and onto a small strip between the fence and the access road to the docks. Over the last weeks, supporters and journalists have flocked to the tents and gazebos, squeezing in for interviews, delivering donations or simply expressing their solidarity.

When I visited the docks the last time on Wednesday, April 10, workers were still holding out but becoming less optimistic. A certain routine seems to have developed: They collect their daily 500 HKD – paid out from the strike fund, which solely depends on donations – play cards and have a chat with their colleagues, supporters and the press. But in the absence of any real progress, there seems to be a certain disillusion about the failing negotiations and the passivity of the city government. While capital and state stay motionless, a solidarity march of 4,000 protesters took place on Sunday, April 7, including trade unions, political parties, Leftist groups and migrant organisations – its broad coalition (driven by very different intentions) being an exceptional occurrence in Hong Kong, and arguably not only there. The demonstration stopped at Li Ka-shing’s office and ended with a rally in front of the seat of the city government. A huge number of students and young people are moreover involved in organising support activities – fundraising, reports for their student papers, but also boycott actions at the Park ‘n Shop supermarket chain, which also belongs to Li Ka-shing. The composition of the student participants seems to be very diverse, some being members of Leftist groups, others seem unpoliticised but driven to participate by a vague feeling of injustice or human rights violations. Some are even urged by their teachers to go down and support the strike (e.g. students of social work).

It remains to be seen what will happen. Possible scenarios at the moment seem to be that management will give in on certain demands and withhold others, thus providing the possibility of a split amongst the strikers based on accepting or rejecting the offer. Simply waiting until the strike fund runs out and the workers’ moral declines seems another option – albeit a costly and risky one. The daily losses for Hutchison are massive; and incoming containers have already been re-channelled to the port in Shenzhen. On the other hand, this scenario also recasts dark memories of the past, when increasing competition from the rapid development of the Shenzhen port since the 1980s provided the background for a massive attack on dockworkers, one of the most militant sectors of the Hong Kong working class. Open repression seems to be off the agenda for the time being, given the high degree of media attention, local and international solidarity – and the inclination of the city government to project itself as the democratic and liberal counterpart to mainland China. Finally, bringing in replacement workers would be an obvious management tactic to break the strike. Avoiding the rain under a gazebo at the strike camp, watching patrolling police at the open gates and trucks passing towards one of the few operating cranes, I am wondering why in the absence of a picket line this has not happened so far. Asking Jeff, he replies: “Because no one is willing to work under these conditions.”

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2 comments on “HK Dockworkers’ Strike Enters Third Week, Attracts Widespread Support

  1. zisel on said:

    Ellen pointed out that Li Ka-shing, who owns more than 70% of the ports, also owns more than 70% of shares in Husky Energy, a US-founded now Alberta, Canada-based energy company. Husky Energy is now developing oil sands in Western Canada (http://www.hydrocarbons-technology.com/projects/sunrise-oil-sands-alberta-canada/sunrise-oil-sands-alberta-canada5.html). I wonder what impact Keystone XL will have on them and what relationship they have had with that project, being as big an issue in the US as that has been.
    Husky Energy is also increasingly looking to the other side of the world (esp SEA) and has invested in two subsea wells off the Pearl River Delta — the Wenchang well (off Hainan) and the Liwan well.

  2. zisel on said:

    Also, the Shanghai ports might be a source of solidarity, given their strike almost exactly 2 years ago (Apr 20-22 2011):

    Even though traffic is not likely to be rerouted through Shanghai, I believe Shanghai, Shenzhen, and HK have the three highest capacity ports in China.

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