All On the Same Ocean 同一个海上

Solidarity with Strikers on the Hong Kong Docks 声援香港码头工人罢工


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Changed Social Landscape Emerges from Dock Strike

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Stephen Vines
 
May 11 2013
 
Unionists cheer dockers on their first day back at the port. Photo: Edward Wong

Who won the port strike? As ever, this kind of question has no simple answer but, such as they are, the answers are more interesting than might be imagined.

Let’s start with the big question of whether the dockers won or lost. Clearly, they did not achieve the pay rise they were seeking – the 9.8 per cent accepted being around half their original demand – but management was forced to double its initial offer and to concede improved conditions of work that it initially refused even to discuss.

In purely monetary terms, it will be hard for the strikers to claw back the lost pay they sacrificed during the dispute; moreover some are now jobless. Yet they emerge from the strike with a strong sense of pride and solidarity, plus the comforting assurance of widespread public support for their cause.

What the strike crystallised was a significant change in the way many people regard Hong Kong’s leading businessmen, once hailed as rags-to-riches heroes but now seen in a very different light. The change in mood may well produce some interesting results.

Li Ka-shing, the man in the eye of the anti-big-business storm, emerges from this strike in bad shape. True, he kept his port company more or less at arm’s length. Yet, by actions such as taking out full-page newspaper advertisements denouncing the strike and its leaders, the company reinforced the impression that Li was at the centre of the strike, and not in a positive way. I have not heard anyone saying anything good about his actions; at best, they have been described as “understandable”.

On the other hand, the pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions, under the leadership of Lee Cheuk-yan, has clearly enhanced its status as the most impressive fighter for workers’ rights. The bigger pro-Beijing unions were largely left on the sidelines and suffered from the suspicion that they could no longer be relied upon to support the workers. This is damaging because one of the central planks of the pro-Beijing camp’s credibility is that it has a strong working-class base.

As for the government, well what can we say? Officials kind of stood aside at the outset, then kind of got involved and then kind of claimed to have settled the dispute. In other words, it was kind of muddled and ineffective. Smart governments either keep well away from private industrial disputes or plunge in with some determination. This government did neither. What a surprise.

There are wider questions to be asked about the consequences of this strike for collective bargaining. It is well known that those engaged in industrial disputes enjoy no more than minimal protection under Hong Kong’s laws. And we shall see, for example, whether there is longer-term retaliation against the strikers, who lack legal protection against such action. Yet the strike clearly showed that even employers who, as in this case, refuse to recognise the union leading the strike could be forced to sit down and negotiate with them.

One institution emerges from this strike with its reputation very much intact.

The judiciary resisted the legal bullying of Li’s lawyers trying to remove strikers from outside his headquarters, by ensuring that the rights of assembly were upheld, while also ruling on the removal of obstructions arising from these rights that were causing problems of public access.

The courts did their job in exemplary fashion and sent a reassuring message that they were not to be swayed by those with the biggest wads of cash.

Overall, the strike shows the effectiveness of industrial action and a change in public attitudes towards it. Who would have thought that as Hong Kong enters the 21st century, the place often portrayed as an epitome of capitalist values would be moving in this direction? This story is far from over.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on May 11, 2013 as Changed social landscape emerges from dock strike
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HKCTU End of Strike Statement

Union of Hong Kong Dockers

6 May 2013

Members of UHKD decided in the meeting held this evening to call an end to the 40-day strike in the HIT terminals.

 On 6 May, UHKD received a written confirmation jointly signed by the four contractors of HIT, Everbest, Comcheung, Lem Wing and Pui Kee via the Labour Department. The four companies confirmed the new salary plan of 9.8% increase in the basic wage for all their employees at different works in the Kwai Chung Contrainer Terminals, effective for one year from 1 May 2013. In the workers’ meeting called by UHKD in the evening, members considered the written assurance by the four contractors with the Labour Department a step forward compared to the verbal, unilateral announcement these companies made on 3 May. Although the strike has not secured a collective bargaining agreement with the employers, the 40-day industrial action has broken the “tradition” of unilateralism and succeeded in forcing the contractors to seal a written confirmation about the pay and working conditions. UHKD believes that this is the first step towards building a mechanism of communication and negotiation between the employers and the union representing a large section of the contractual workers in the Hong Kong terminals.

 The four contractors’ written confirmation also gives details committing the employers to “improve the occupational safety and health protection with the terminal companies”, as well as providing the crane operators the right “to stop the machine to take lunch freely”, and “leave their workplace for toilet”. Members of UHKD decide that these concrete commitments are important basis for the union to continue the engagement with the contractors and HIT in good faith in the future.

 While calling an end to the strike, the union is now working to assist the re-employment of its members, particularly the hundred crane operators employed by Global Stevedoring which announced its closure on 18 April. The union is pressing the Labour Department to negotiate with all the contractors for the soonest possible re-employment of these members.

 UHKD will see to the end that the contractors abide by their promise of non-retaliation; and that none of its members will be penalized in the future for having taken part in the strike. The union will follow up to demand the contractors and HIT for a mechanism to schedule the rest and lunch breaks, enforce the safety and health provisions, review the salary regularly and eventually establish a collective bargaining mechanism that includes the contractual workers in the terminals.

 The passionate support and generous donations of the Hong Kong community, the international trade unions and organizations have helped us to sustain the strike for forty days. On behalf of our members, UHKD is thankful to all of you who have been giving us unwavering support. Together with you, we have demonstrated again the importance of workers’ unity in fighting not only for reasonable pay, but also our dignity and our future.

 It is the time for Hong Kong SAR government to re-table the legislation on collective bargaining, scrapped by the government in 1997, in obligations under the ILO Convention No98. The working people in Hong Kong must have an internationally recognized mechanism on collective bargaining to ensure the right to fair negotiation of their working conditions and protection of the unions they belong to.