Thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets yesterday for Labor Day marches to petition for better labor conditions and in support of strike action by workers at docks operated by billionaire Li Ka-shing.
About 3,700 people were present at the peak of a rally organised by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions in support of the dockers, according to Kimmy Man, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Police Force. As many as 2,600 marched this morning in a separate procession organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions for workers’ rights, she added.
The protests underscore rising public discontent at the growing gap between rich and poor in the former British colony. A 7.1 percent increase in the city’s minimum wage to HK$30 ($3.9) an hour took effect yesterday, as the government attempts to narrow inequality that is at its worst level since records began in 1971.
Protesters rallied behind the biggest labor revolt against Li, Asia’s richest man. About 450 dock workers, crane operators and stevedores have been on strike since March 28 demanding higher wages and better working conditions at the world’s third-busiest container port.
Demonstrators carrying caricature portraits of Li and Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying marched from Wan Chai and Victoria Park to the government offices in Central and then to Li’s Cheung Kong Center headquarters amid occasional rain. They wheeled a life-sized puppet representing a bloodied worker mangled in a factory press.
The marchers waved placards with “workers’ solidarity” and “students for strikers”. Other banners demanded collective bargaining rights, workers’ solidarity, standardized working hours, fully paid maternity leave, better retirement benefits and subsidies for low-income families.
Mass and social media have helped turn the strike by dockers into a social movement, said Randy Chiu, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The public “view that probably the same thing will happen to them if they don’t act together,” said Chiu. “People are really against tycoons and property developers who also control other businesses.”
The industrial action at Hongkong International Terminals Ltd. has led at least 100 ships to skip Hong Kong in favor of nearby ports, damaging the city’s role as a trade hub for China.
Talks organized by the labor department between the Union of Hong Kong Dockers and contractors of Li’s terminal have yet to reach any agreement. Workers rejected an earlier offer of a 7 percent pay increase, while scaling back demands for a 23 percent rise to a “double-digit” increase.
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, according to the port operator.
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.
Hongkong International Terminals is operated 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’s port. Hutchison Whampoa has interests in 52 ports globally from Panama to the Netherlands.
Terminals controlled by Hutchison Port also have a 46 percent market share in Shenzhen, where shipping lines including Evergreen Marine Corp Taiwan Ltd. diverted vessels because of the strike in Hong Kong.
The demonstration, which first took place outside the port, moved to Li’s Cheung Kong Center building in the city’s Central district as workers tried to escalate their protest. The move spurred a court battle with Li over their right to demonstrate.
The port workers earn HK$55 ($6) an hour, less than the HK$60.70 they were paid in 1995, according to the Union of Hong Kong Dockers. They took a pay cut in 2003 during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which hurt Hong Kong’s economy.
Li is boosting his dominance at the Hong Kong port as Hutchison Port in March bought a box terminal from DP World Ltd. and a partner. Li’s companies run businesses including retail, telecommunications, property development, electricity and port operations. He has a total wealth of $27.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Other protesters took to the streets to demand standard working hours working hours. The Hong Kong government last month set up a committee to study the issue.