Hong Kong’s government made a renewed effort to end the longest strike at the city’s container terminal after workers at billionaire Li Ka-shing’s docks scaled back demands for a 23 percent wage increase.
The labor department invited the Union of Hong Kong Dockers to talks today, where contractors of Li’s Hongkong International Terminals Ltd. will be present, employees’ union representative Wong Yu-loy said. Earlier talks aimed at defusing the four-week dispute failed after the workers rejected a 7 percent pay raise.
The terminals are operating at 90 percent of capacity and the delays faced by ships for berthing have been cut after the hiring of temporary workers, Canning Fok, chairman of Li’s Hutchison Port Holdings Trust, said in Singapore. The biggest industrial action ever faced by Li, Asia’s richest man, led at least 100 ships to skip Hong Kong in favor of nearby ports, threatening the city’s reputation as a trade hub for China.
“The stalemate is hurting everyone,” said Geoffrey Cheng, an analyst at Bank of Communications Co. in Hong Kong. “Yes, the workers are under pressure, but it’s also hurting the port operator as operations haven’t fully recovered.”
The industrial action was “pretty much over” after an April 1 court order prohibited workers from demonstrating at the docks, Fok said yesterday. The port operator has received interest for jobs at terminals from outsiders, said Gerry Yim, Chief Executive Officer of Hutchison Port Holdings Trust.
Contractors at Li’s terminals in the world’s third-busiest container port hired workers to cut the waiting time for ships on average to 20-to-25 hours last week, compared with about 60 hours when the strike started.
Suggestions that the strike is over is “nonsense” and it’s the biggest weapon for the workers to seek a fair treatment, said Ho Wai-hong, another representative of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers.
The workers are willing to drop an earlier demand of a 23 percent pay increase, Lee Cheuk-yan, the general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, said by phone.
“It’s open to discussions,” Lee said by phone on April 27. Workers would still want an increase in the “double digits,” he said.
About 450 dock workers, mostly crane operators and stevedores, walked out on March 28, demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Some of the strikers have also surrounded Li’s 70-story Cheung Kong Center building in the city’s Central district, spurring a court battle with Li over their right to protest.
Hongkong International Terminals is owned by Hutchison Port Holdings Trust, whose largest shareholder is Li’s Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. Hutchison Port, along with partner Cosco Pacific Ltd., dominates half of the capacity at Hong Kong, the third-largest container port behind Shanghai and Singapore.
The Union of Hong Kong Dockers said 3,000 people took part in a rally April 26 at the Government House, the official residence of the city’s chief executive, while the police said 600 people participated, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.
The striking workers represent about 12 percent of 3,500 to 3,800 contract staff Hutchison Port hires in Hong Kong, according to its latest annual report. They earn HK$55 an hour, less than the HK$60.70 they were paid in 1995, the union said. The workers took a pay cut in 2003 during the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak.
Some workers were told they will lose their jobs on April 19 as Global Stevedoring Service Co., one of the contractors which employs them, decided to wind up operations because it wasn’t able to meet the salary demands.
Hutchison said it received interest from non-dock workers, including taxi drivers and security guards, to work at terminals and is training job applicants to drive cranes, Yim said.
The daily financial loss caused by the strike has been “significantly” cut in the past two weeks, Hongkong International said in an April 23 statement, without elaboration. The daily loss was narrowed to HK$2.4 million ($309,000) on April 5 from HK$5 million, it said.
Li’s Hutchison Whampoa won a court order barring the workers from entering Cheung Kong Center to demonstrate, according to a company statement and RTHK. The court will hear arguments on May 3 over the workers’ right to protest in and around the building.
Cheung Kong Center is home to offices of companies including Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.