Li Ka-Shing Port Workers Widen Protests After New Wage Offer

Hundreds of port workers at Li Ka-shing’s Hong Kong terminals surrounded his Cheung Kong Center headquarters in the city’s business district after rejecting a pay raise aimed at ending a three-week strike.

Contract workers of Li’s Hongkong International Terminals Ltd. were offered a 7 percent raise by their employers, the company said in an e-mail, compared with the workers’ demand for a 23 percent increase. Hong Kong government mediators have helped narrow the differences between employers and workers, Labor Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters yesterday.

Unhappy at the offer, more than 200 workers gathered outside Cheung Kong Center, holding placards demanding better pay and shouting slogans against Li. The strike, which prompted shipping lines to divert vessels to Shenzhen, China, from the city’s harbor, is the biggest revolt against the 84-year-old Li, who is Asia’s richest man and is nicknamed “superman” by the local media for his investing prowess.

Workers are “extremely disappointed” with the talks as the wage increase offered is less than the union’s demand, said Wong Yu-loy, a representative of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers.

Employees marched near the 70-story Cheung Kong Centre, home to offices of companies such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Barclays Plc. Dozens of the striking workers slept in tents surrounding the building overnight and more will come back today to continue the protest, Choy Sai-leung, a 52-year striking stevedore said today.

Cheung Kong Centre

Police and security guards are patrolling the area, with Cheung Kong Centre closing all but one of its exits. The striking dock workers will stay outside of the building until a wage agreement is reached, Wong said yesterday.

About 450 workers, mostly crane operators and stevedores, walked out on March 28, seeking higher wages and better working conditions as rising living costs and record home prices spur discontent in the city.

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, the world’s third-largest container port behind Shanghai and Singapore.

Shares of Hutchison Port were unchanged at 82 cents as of 10:22 a.m. Hutchison Whampoa shares fell 0.6 percent to HK$80.30 in Hong Kong trading.

Fair Demand

The strike may entail increases in costs for the port operator, Johnson Leung, an analyst at Jefferies Hong Kong Ltd., told Rishaad Salamat on Bloomberg TV today.

“It’s fair for them to ask what they think they deserve,” Leung said. “From an investment angle, we probably have to expect a bit more cost inflation.”

The strike in Hong Kong prompted shipping lines including Evergreen Marine Corp Taiwan Ltd. to divert vessels to Shenzhen. Terminals controlled by Hutchison Port have a 46 percent market share in that port.

Chan Tsz-kit, who has worked as a stevedore for 22 years for one of the port contractors, said he decided to join the strike because his wages don’t meet his expenses.

“The companies have forced us into a hopeless situation,” said 40-year-old Chan, who moved house to neighboring Shenzhen because he can’t afford Hong Kong rents. “Our pay can never catch up with inflation. Everything is so expensive now.”

Work to Rule

The dockworkers at Hong Kong port earn HK$55 ($7) an hour, according to Union of Hong Kong Dockers. That is less than they were paid in 1995, according to the union. The workers had a pay cut in 2003 during the SARS outbreak.

In support of the dockworkers, about 300 crane operators, hired by Hongkong International, began a work-to-rule action on April 4, according to Sin Hiu-yan, a spokeswoman of Hongkong International Terminal Group Employees General Union. To play strictly by the rulebook, the workers took an on-the-ground toilet break, instead of relieving themselves aloft to save a half-an-hour trip to the ground, Sin said.

The daily financial loss caused by the strike narrowed to HK$2.4 million on April 5 from HK$5 million earlier as an “increasing number” of workers returned to the port after the strike began, according to Hongkong International.

In Australia, where Hutchison is building container terminals, the company has agreed to pay dock workers at least A$80,000 ($82,928) a year, Joe Deakin, assistant Branch Secretary at Maritime Union of Australia, said yesterday. Deakin was in Hong Kong to support the striking workers.

“It’s unfair that workers here have been subjected to terrible treatment by Hutchison subcontractors,” he said. “Yet, workers in Australia are going to be treated decently, that’s not right.”

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