"All on the same ocean" - Hong Kong Dock Workers win 40-day Strike

A record breaking 40-day dockworkers strike at Kwai Tsing Container Terminal in Hong Kong ended with victory on 6 May.

On 6 May a general meeting of the workers of Kwai Tsing Container Terminal in Hong Kong voted to accept the concessions offered by the bosses and end their 40-day strike. The bosses – who are subcontractors of Hong Kong International Terminals Ltd. (HIK) - promised a 9.8% wage rise for all the workers starting from May, an improved arrangement for freedom to have bathroom and meal breaks; and further negotiation on health and safety in the workplace.

This is still some distance from the workers’ original demands which included a 23% pay increase, an annual salary review and, above all, recognition of the trade union’s right to negotiate with the employers. Thus the struggle continues, but the present outcome is clearly a defeat for the bosses.

The strike has received unprecedented support from all layers of society, especially from students and working class people. The independent trade union – the Union of Hong Kong Dockers (UHKD) which is an affiliate of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) played a leading role in the movement. The militancy of the workers and the solidarity between the working class and students enabled the workers to fight against a mighty enemy – the giant monopoly Li Ka-shing’s Hitchison and Whampoa. The movement marks a new turning point for the labour movement and the social movement in Hong Kong and Mainland China.

The other side of the port giant’s success

Up to now, Hong Kong has been ranked the world’s third-busiest container port, after Singapore and Shanghai. It is famous for having the most frequent connections to the United States, Europe and the rest of Asia, as well as being a world-leader in efficiency. Kwai Tsing is the most important port in Hong Kong. HIT, the employer of the striking workers, operates 14 berths, more than half of which are in Kwai Tsing. HIT’s parent company – Hitchison and Whampoa (HWL) is the largest container port operator in the world (by cargo volume), operating in five of the seven busiest container ports in the world and also running operations in various other smaller ports. Ports and related services are the most profitable industry in the transportation sector in Hong Kong. HIT is reported to control almost 70% of the profit in this industry, and Hitchison Port Holdings achieved an 18.3% increase in profit, thus reaching almost £460 million in 2012. Li Ka-shing, the chairman of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., is ranked the eighth richest person in the world with an estimated wealth of £20 billion. Fok Kin-ning, Chairman of HIT, with an annual salary of £15 million, is one of the top five taxpayers in Hong Kong.

All of this wealth however, is derived from severe exploitation of the dock workers. For almost 20 years outsourcing has been taking place in Kwai Tsing. Apart from the crane operators, most of the jobs have been out-sourced to subcontractors. The many layers of outsourced workers is a means of dividing the workers and confusing them in order to prevent them from taking militant action.

The outsourced workforce have to work extremely long hours. Having to work three shifts back to back (a 24 hour shift) is routine every month. During the busy season, they are made to work continuously for 48 or even 72 hours! Despite the long working hours, their salary is not proportionately high. The average monthly salary is around HK$ 13,000 (£1,076), which is just above the median income in Hong Kong. Moreover, their salary has not been increased for almost 17 years – the current pay for 24 hours work is HK$ 1300 (£108) compared to HK$ 1480 (£123) in 1997. In addition, the work intensity has also been increased. For example, in the past a shipside team consisting of 8 workers was responsible for 15 containers per hour, but now a team of just 6 workers is responsible for 21 containers per hour.

Workers are also suffering under inhumane working conditions. They are given no meal breaks and have to eat every meal on the job. The crane workers are not permitted to come down from the crane at all during the shift. This means that they not only have to eat meals in the 2m2 space, but also are forced to solve the problem of bathroom visits here. CCTV has been installed all around the port to enforce these conditions of work. In extreme weather conditions such as gales, the employees still have to work. Even in carrying out their regular work, the employees still face the constant danger of injury or death. Reports from workers say that accidents are a regular occurrence in the port, but are never reported to Labour Department.

These are the people who make the Hong Kong Port operate continuously and efficiently. As the workers shouted during a rally; they are able to feed Li Ka-shing, but are not able to feed their own families! Rather than saying that the success of the company has not been shared by the workers, it would be much more accurate to say that it is the exploitation of the workers that makes HIT and HPH so successful in the first place, it is the workers that feed the company!

Anger built up

In 1995, the terminal was outsourced by a subcontractor to four second-layer subcontractors. The shipside workers had already been finding it very difficult to carry out the workload required of them, but the subcontractor decided to reduce the team size from 8 people to 6 people. The workers objected and put forward their demands. The refusal to negotiate from HIT led to strike action by 300 workers. On the second day of this action, HIT responded with decision to replace the subcontractor. The workers thought they had won the battle, until later they discovered the new subcontractors SAKOMA and FLOATA were actually just the crony companies of HIT. Salaries were reduced, work intensity was increased, and things became even worse. The bitterness of this failure demoralised the workers.

Although small actions have taken place during the past few years, the workers have been extremely cautious due to the threat of losing their jobs if found to have initiated any industrial action. It was not until 2005 that an independent trade union was set up in HIT. That year, several workers who had been sacked from Modern Terminal Ltd. came to work in HIT. They were members of HKCTU and were helped by the union to claim compensation for their dismissal. Those workers used their experience to help establish the trade union in HIT.

In 2011, the shipside workers found that their wages were being reduced to a lower level than they had been in 1996. The union mobilised 400 members and eventually won a HK$150 (£12) pay increase per shift, although the non-unionised crane workers only won a HK$60 (£5) increase per shift. In 2012, although inflation hit 8%, workers were still afraid to ask for a wage increase. But despite the fear inspired by the bosses, the workers’ anger and a sense of injustice has been building up. Meanwhile, one union member has set up a Facebook page called ‘the miseries on the port’ to agitate and unite the dock workers, especially the crane operators. Workers also invited journalists to pay an unannounced visit to the port and publish a report on their findings in the press.

In 2013, with 5% inflation, the workers had no option but to ask for pay increase. In January, the workers decided to ask for 23% pay hike, but received no reply from the HIT. On 20 March, the union tried to negotiate with HIT again and threatened strike action. HIT then declared a 5% wage increase (equivalent to inflation rate), but the workers refused to accept this offer. They organised a demonstration outside the Cheung Kong Centre, the location of the Hutchison Whampoa Group’s HQ, together with students and other organisations. Despite this action HIT still stuck to 5% increase and this is what finally led to strike action.

An uneven battle

On 28 March, more than 200 outsourced workers from several different subcontractors started the strike in Terminal 6. As the workers blocked the road the strike quickly spread. On the second day, 90% of the operations were paralysed at Terminals 4, 6, 7 and 9. A strike fund was set up and students and activists came to show support. Later 250 more outsourced crane operators also joined the strike, while the company workers staged a ‘work-to-rule’. Around 450 workers marched from Terminal 6 to Terminal 8. The strike quickly gained around 1500 supporters who came to the port and joined the rally.

The workers organised five general meetings, in which all the striking workers democratically took decisions after thorough discussion. In the first meeting, workers on different positions made their demands clear and together they finalised their joint demands – a 23% pay increase, recognition of the trade union for the purposes of negotiation and better working conditions and health and safety standards. They also agreed that only when HIT and the three major subcontractors were all present would the representatives of the workers attend negotiations with them. In subsequent meetings the workers discussed and voted upon whether to accept the offer from the subcontractors.

However HIT was a strong enemy. At first, they tried to distance themselves from the workers and tried to shift all the responsibility onto the subcontractors. This blatant attempt to ignore their obligations was exposed by the media who reported that the major shareholders of the subcontractors are actually from HIT. HIT and the subcontractors then used the classic ‘carrot and stick’ method. On the second day, one of the subcontractors Comcheung promised a pay hike of almost 20 per cent, in two increments, by the end of next year. Similarly, later other subcontractors tried to bribe workers into abandoning the strike with a bonus of HK$3000 (£500) for the first two weeks and another of HK$2000 (£165) for the second two weeks. Meanwhile, another subcontractor threatened to sack all those workers who continued to strike. These tactics were partially successful as tens of workers abandoned the strike on the second day, and several more followed later on.

But as long as the workers could picket inside the port, they still represented a significant threat to the bosses. This is why HIT immediately sought an injunction against the strike. The court did not hesitate before sacrificing the constitutional right to strike and the freedom of expression for the unions on the altar of the private rights of the port operators and others to enjoy the use of the terminals. This greatly weakened and limited the influence of the strike, as the workers and supporters were evicted from the terminal. Although the court later authorised 80 people to return, they were only allowed to persuade workers in the car park of Terminal 6.

The media also helped the capitalists in attacking the workers by condemning them for having political intentions and claiming that they were being used by activists and politicians. Via media outlets Fok Kin-ning accused the workers and their leaders of using Cultural Revolution methods to attack him and Li Ka-shing. This accusation was intended to remind the public of the 1967 Leftist Riot, which was a nightmare for many people living in Hong Kong because of the terrorist elements that took hold in its final stages. It is also not surprising to see that various lies about the dispute were heavily reported, such as the apparently high salary, the allegedly good working conditions etc. In the last few days, several newspapers have dedicated whole pages to interviews with those workers who were not on strike, asserting that more than 60% of the workers were willing to accept the subcontractors’ offer.

In order to minimise their losses, HIT employed temporary workers for shipside work, and asked the workers who were not on strike to work overtime. For more crucial jobs such as crane operation, retired workers were rehired. Another important factor is that the Yantian Port in Shenzhen, only 50 km away from Kwai Tsing, is also largely under the control of Hutchinson Whampoa. It would not have been difficult for them to redistribute some of the workforce from one port to another.

Under such circumstances, HIT and the subcontractors remained tough, sticking to the offer of a 5% pay increase and a 2% increase in welfare payments. In first five rounds of negotiations organised by the Labour Department, they offered no other concessions and found various different excuses to call each round to an end. It was not until the 38th day of the strike, when 80 crane workers rejoined the strike, that they finally increased the offer to 9.8% increase and put it in writing.

Resonance across society

Although the enemy was much stronger the workers continued their militant action for 40 days, surpassing the 36-day record created by the bar-benders in 2007. Without support from a broad layer in society, this could never have been achieved.

Right from the very beginning, the students fought side by side with the workers. Some students joined the demonstration even before the strike. On the second day of the strike, the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Left 21 organised students to come to the port to offer help with logistics. They actively talked to the workers in order to learn more about them and wrote and published several articles on Facebook, which in turn attracted a wider range of students and workers to the cause. From the 9th day of the strike, the Hong Kong Federation of Social Work Students and Left 21 began to publish a daily paper reporting on the progress of the strike and the support coming in from all over society to the dock workers. They also organised cheering parties, set up stalls all over Hong Kong to ask for donations, participated in demonstrations together with the workers as well as alone, and publicised the struggle on social networks.

Their presence and efforts gave workers enormous support. As one of the worker said in the interview, ‘I thought of leaving. But when I saw the young students staying in the rain to support us, I did not have any excuse to leave. They were not as strong as us, but they persisted, and even told us ‘you don’t leave, we don’t leave’.’

The dockers’ action achieved a huge social resonance. ‘In support of the dock workers’ became one of the most popular phrases online. Many people uploaded photos to the internet with this phrase written on pieces of paper to show their support. People donated money and supplies which enabled the striking workers to make ends meet. With the donations of thousands of people, the strike fund reached more than HK$ 8.5 million (£0.7 million), almost 10 times as that of the 36-day bar-bender strike in 2007. Unlike in the past, the condemnation of the strike as bad for the economy was not an effective method by which to limit support for the strike. On May Day, thousands of people joined the march in support of the dock workers. Earlier, on 7 April, there had been another demonstration with 4000 participants.

The wide support shows how much the mood has changed in Hong Kong society. After the 1967 riot, there was a general fear of the left in Hong Kong. Social movements are usually oriented around anti-Chinese Communist Party and calls for the right to a general election. Labour issues have long been neglected. Why has this strike been so different? It is because working class people saw their own struggles reflected in those of the dock workers. In spite of economic growth, the standard of living for ordinary people has not improved. The median monthly salary only rose from HK$ 9,500 in 1996 to 11,000 in 2011, well behind the speed of inflation. On the other hand, the Gini index for inequality rose from 0.518 to 0.537. 40 monopolies dominate 69% of Hong Kong’s GDP, and control both the economy and the politics. Hong Kong society is severely polarised, and social mobility has broken down. There is a general anger towards monopolies, towards low wages, bad working conditions and the backward labour laws, and towards the Hong Kong free-market model.

All on the same ocean

Despite these great achievements, we have to accept that this strike action had its limitations. A considerable number of workers abandoned the strike in the face of pressure and temptation from the subcontractors. And the strike failed to spread to the other 80% of workers in HIT terminals who did not take part in this action, especially the company workers. The other two unions who represent those workers rowed back on their demands and held separate negotiations with HIT and the subcontractors. These are the reasons why that the strike did not achieve all the workers’ demands. The dock workers must continue fighting for the protection of striking workers, health and safety rights and better welfare and trade union rights. Unity between workers and unions must be built through this struggle.

As Marx pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, ‘the real fruit of their battles lie not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers’. As one striking worker said in an interview, he “realised that he was not alone and the workers are not selfish”; he is fighting together with more than 400 fellow workers, fighting together with the working class and students. The dockers’ strike sets a good example and builds up confidence for the working class in Hong Kong. It is a reflection of the explosive mood that is developing in Hong Kong and in mainland China where the world’s largest working class is beginning to stretch its muscles.

The main slogan of the strike was ‘all on the same ocean’, which intended to unite company workers and outsourced workers. This slogan is can be applied to all of Hong Kong society. On the other side of the strait there is the Yantian Port in Shenzhen which is also largely owned by HWL. 800 dock workers in this port took strike action twice in 2007 to demand a pay increase, better welfare at work and the establishment of a trade union. The workers on both sides of the strait are fighting the same enemy and making the same demands. In future, they will be fighting side by side and they need such unity if they are to defeat the mighty enemy. Millions of workers in China are facing similar problems of outsourcing, low wages, bad working conditions and lack of trade union protection – in effect the problems created by Capitalism. Although the road to unity is difficult and long, the single sparks of individual strikes and mass actions will eventually link together and start a prairie fire!