"I work beside my shit. I eat beside my shit.": impressions from the dockworkers strike in Hong Kong

"I work beside my shit. I eat beside my shit.": impressions from the dockworkers strike in Hong Kong

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

Posted By

Juan Conatz
May 11 2013 23:00

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Steven.
May 12 2013 12:56

N.b. this strike ended with the unions declaring victory when they were offered a 9.8% pay increase for all workers.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22430016

no mention of working conditions in the agreement. So it's not clear how much of a victory this really is. Anyone know more?

meinberg
May 12 2013 19:47

i'm not shure, how much of a victory it is, but there were changes in the working conditions in the agreements. from another article:

"A 40-day strike of more than 500 dockworkers at the Port of Hong Kong
ended yesterday with a settlement that included a 9.8 percent wage
increase, non-retaliation against strikers, and a written agreement, all
of which had been fiercely resisted by the four contractors targeted in
the strike. Strikers accepted the offer by a 90 percent vote.

The four contractors also agreed to work through the port manager Hong
Kong International Terminal (HIT) to provide meal and toilet breaks,
which had been lacking even for workers on 12- or 24-hour shifts. Crane
operators laid off during the strike will be rehired.

[...]Though members of the Union of Hong Kong Dock Workers (UHKDW) had been holding to their demand for a double-digit wage increase, they had
growing concerns about contractors’ use of scabs and the relative ease
with which shippers could reroute from Hong Kong to the nearby mainland
China port of Shenzhen. After the breakthrough accomplishment of forcing
the contractors to negotiate, and clearly winning the battle of public
opinion, strikers were ready to return to work.

The strike was notable in that dockworkers across multiple
sub-contractors first self-organized, from the bottom up, before seeking
affiliation for their union with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade
Unions (HKCTU)."
https://hkstrikes.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/hong-kong-dockers-claim-victory-interview-with-hk-strike-leader/

Steven.
May 13 2013 10:33

Great, thanks - looks like a significant victory in that case!

MonsieurPlume
Jun 14 2013 10:02

greetings,

i'm an anarchist from Hong Kong, and spent a good amount of time at the strike from the beginning...it all feels like an extended honeymoon, and it has taken a rather huge physical and emotional toll on me and my friends, not to mention the workers themselves...we're all recovering from the intensity of the events. the group that i am a part of is now in the process of preparing an evaluation of our experiences during and after the strike, and i'm not sure if i can really get into much detail here, but i can say without any reservations whatsoever that the image that the public, local and international, have of this strike is alarmingly incomplete....

this article is pretty much on-point as far as its description of the working conditions at the docks go, but i'm afraid the author has been misled about the nature of the UHKDW and the HKCTU, two bureaucratic monoliths staffed by politicos and their heir apparents which should be taken to task by anybody who believes in the ideals espoused by this website, methinks. comparing the HKCTU to english and american unions is a bit odd, because the dynamics in hong kong are rather different and the HKCTU is regarded as being aligned with the official 'Left' establishment (the pro-democratic coalition critical of Beijing), but as far as i'm concerned how 'bureaucratic' a union is doesn't solely have to do with how integrated it is into the workings of the state, but whether it encourages proletarian autonomy and self-activity rather than the 'representative' (substitutive would be a better word) hierarchies that we are so used to seeing.

if we look beyond the figures- themselves complicated by the fact that the different workgroups across different terminals have met with a variety of difficulties after the official conclusion of the strike, difficulties that they will have to resolve on their own, now that the strike is 'supposed' to be over and nobody is supposed to care about the plight of the dockworkers anymore- and focus, as libertarian communists tend to do, on what was built between groups of workers that had been separated, by the very nature of their work (shifts, technology), from their own powers of organisation and collectivity, on what transpired between the workers and the 'activists' that they had hitherto watched on tv, then we will see a very different picture...
what transformations took place? what advances in proletarian autonomy were made? what forms of experimentation were invented in response to difficulties that surfaced during the struggle? did the workers create new channels of communication and collective deliberation among themselves, rather than being at the mercy of their representatives, who had a monopoly on information and executive power? how independent were the workers allowed to be? has the strike impelled them to reflect upon the place of the worker in this society, and how he relates to the multifarious antagonisms and struggles that surround him? on the workings of class and how it materializes itself INSIDE the workers' movement itself, in hierarchies and the division of labor (the articulate and 'educated' union folk and workers' representatives being charged with charming the media and engaging in bureaucratic/legal wrangles behind closed doors)?

the answers to these questions will probably dismay anybody who has followed this strike from the outside, though it will probably not surprise anybody who has been involved in strikes of this nature before. suffice to say that the union was a lot more interested in staging an elaborate and spectacular media campaign, to which every form of self-activity was sacrificed. the workers were simply treated as suffering and mute bodies to be exhibited to the media, shock troops summoned to appear and disappear at the behest of their eloquent and media-savvy superiors. meanwhile, they did all the hard work sitting in the strike quarters through the thunderstorms and extreme heat, awaiting news from negotiations while their families worried about them at home. of course you have to sympathize with them as they wondered whether it was all worth it. in that situation, where 'union meetings' and 'workers assemblies' featured endless bureaucratic soliloquies punctuated by forced applause from those that they 'represented', we felt as bewildered and as hapless as anybody else.

it sounds grim, but what this strike provided, for the most part, was an opportunity for hierarchy to consolidate itself among the workers and for certain people to advance their own political or bureaucratic careers. the head of the dock workers' union boasted, in private, that he had been on TV more often throughout the strike than the chief executive of this city, got on the front cover of a number of magazines, a huge feature in the english-speaking newspaper, etcetera...other workers are now going to assume their new function as foremen and managers of the proletariat...general consensus among the workers that we know is that a struggle of this magnitude is not going to happen again anytime soon (there have only been three strikes in the docks' history, the second of which lasted less than 20 minutes...) when the strike concluded, a few workers struggled desperately to leave the donated funds in the workers' hands, so that they could use it to wage future struggles...some were blacklisted and dismissed, others sit and wait at home all day, passed over all for other workers on call...

for the rest, it's life as usual- their lives occupied almost exclusively by grueling, demeaning, thoroughly exhausting labor, with intermittent bouts of sleep. all of this has been happening in the dark, without the attention of the general public, who were supposed to have grown frustrated and bored with a movement that had occupied the center of their screens for far too long....the workers themselves, even the most creative and outspoken of them, became crestfallen, bitter, disenchanted, forced to stifle and reserve all of their disgruntlements to themselves...at the end of the day, nearly everybody is relieved that the strike is over, at least nobody has to maintain the pretense that they are 'winning', nobody has to invest hope in something that has reached a dead end...

of course, things aren't quite as somber as all this, there were many moments of joy throughout those weeks. for the workers, it was the first moment in a very long time where they were given the opportunity to breathe, to socialize between different terminals and workgroups, to get to know the fellows whom they had seen in the docks for the last twenty years but had never had a chance to properly talk to. it was also a marvelous experience for those of us who have passed the docks every day on the highway, without ever wondering how it all worked. never would we have imagined that we would get a chance to go in there and associate with the men who were responsible for hauling in the tobacco that we smoke and the spirits that we drink. for all of our personal and collective failures as an autonomist group in Hong Kong, we have made a number of friendships among the workers which we hope will endure in the future...

these are the things that we hope to talk about in the report that we are preparing, we hope to have it done soon, but really recollecting and reflecting on experiences of such intensity and richness is a very difficult and demanding thing...i just hope to have given you some hints of how the strike went. thanks to anybody who read this effusive response...

Monsieur Plume