An article by Frido Wenten based on talking with a dockworker in Hong Kong during the Spring 2013 strikes.
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.
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 union representative of the Hong Kong Dockworkers Union (HKDU). The latter however had no direct connection to the crane operators when the strike broke out, but it represented workers in other branches of the industry – and was thus also formally responsible for the crane operators. Over the course of the strike the majority of the crane operators joined the HKDU – and so did their elected representatives. The HKDU is affiliated to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), which leads the broader support campaign. The HKCTU seems to be a comparably progressive union, which is still relatively young and not fully bureaucratically encrusted (at least in comparison to the average European 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 HKDU 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 4000 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 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."
Originally posted: April 2013 at Gongchao