By Jane Mee Wong
Northwest Asian Weekly
Eight months ago, dock workers at Hong Kong’s Kwai Chung terminal went on a historic 40-day strike. Faced with declining wages since 1995 and difficult working conditions, the workers — members of the Hong Kong Dock Workers Union (HKDWU) — withheld their labor and shut down the world’s third largest container port.
“Stevedore work in Hong Kong is traditionally coolie work. This means it is casualized with no job security,” said Wong Loy, an organizer with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). He has been supporting the dock workers in their union organizing efforts.
Stevedore work involves the loading and unloading of ships that enter into the ports. Other forms of labor at the docks include crane operators and truck drivers, as well as checkers — individuals who check the container box number on board.
“Even though the ports are very modernized and automated, the people working there are hired on a daily and casualized basis,” said Wong.
Stephen Chan, a dock worker for 18 years and former president of the Hong Kong Dock Workers Union, agreed.
“We get called on daily. There are no set schedules. For example, you can get a call tonight saying you have a 24-hour shift tomorrow. We cannot plan our days.”
During the 24-hour shifts, Chan said, there are no mandated rest periods.
“We arrange it with each other to take break times,” Chan said. “There is no official rest time from the company. So every worker has to look after their brothers. We get very close.”
The bond and trust built among the workers has been central to keeping them united throughout the 40-day strike.
Unlike many ports around the world which are owned by local governments, the Hong Kong port is completely privatized. The British colonial government did not invest in the port infrastructure, leaving its development to the market economy. Kwai Chung Terminal, Hong Kong’s only container port, has nine terminals, of which Hong Kong International Terminal (HIT) is the majority shareholder. HIT is owned by Li Ka Shing, the richest man in Asia, whose net worth is USD $32 billion.
Li’s wealth stands in stark contrast to those who work at the port terminals.
“Our wages have gone down since 1995. Back then, we made HK $1560 (USD $200) for a 24-hour shift. In 2003, during the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, we took a huge pay cut. Back then, every boss tried to make use of the crisis to cut our benefits. They transferred the cost of the crisis to the workers. We made as little as HK $1,060 (USD $135) for a 24-hour shift. It is very hard to survive with this pay,” said Chan. “But we went on strike, not because of the wage cuts. We made about HKD $1,320 (USD $170) for a 24-hour shift before the strike. We went on strike because when the bosses started doing well, they did not share their wealth with us. Even though they wanted us to take a pay cut during the economic crisis.”
For the 2013 fiscal year, Cheong Kong Holdings net profit was HKD $35.26 billion (USD $4.54 billion).
The dock worker’s strike was also significant for the huge level of support it received from the Hong Kong public. The strike fund of the HKDWU grew near HKD $3.9 million through public and international donations, including support from maritime unions in Australia and the United States.
For 20 days, dock workers and their supporters surrounded the Cheong Kong office building in the Central Business District in Hong Kong. Their daily occupation received a lot of support from the public. Youth from local universities and high schools helped to coordinate these actions.
“We got a lot of support because there are many working class people in Hong Kong who face similar situations as us. They too, have been suppressed for a long time,” said Chan.
For its organizing efforts, the HKDWU was slapped with an injunction from the courts that they were trespassing the private property of Cheong Kong Holdings. The organizers challenged the injunction, claiming that public areas could be used for demonstrations.
“The strike had two levels of struggle. One level of it was a fight for the dockers’ pay raise. Another level of it was a struggle for the usage of public space in Hong Kong and the right to demonstrate,” said Wong.
The social movement in Hong Kong appears to be part of a wave of global actions aimed at the reclamation of public space, ranging from Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the Occupy movements in the United States, and Taksim Square protests in Turkey. Apart from their occupation of public spaces, these movements share the involvement of enthusiastic and politically motivated youth to speak out on a broad set of issues related to economic inequality.
At the end of the 40-day strike, the HKDWU achieved a 9.8 percent pay raise for all workers on the docks.
Their membership also increased two-fold with 700 members.
“We have a lot more work to do,” said Chan. “We have to organize the unorganized workers.” (end)
Stephen Chan and Wong Loy will present “All on the Same Ocean” in a talk on April 10 at the International District/Chinatown Community Center at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 206-233-0042.
Jane Mee Wong can be reached at email@example.com.