Li Ka-Shing’s Striking Port Workers Lose Jobs as Protest Widens

Some port workers at Li Ka-shing’s Hong Kong terminals were told they will lose their jobs, as a three-week strike over wage demands at the world’s third-biggest container port escalates.

Global Stevedoring Service Co., one of the contractors which employs the workers, said yesterday it’s unable to meet the wage demands or continue operations because three quarters of its staff are on strike.

“This is one of the worst scenarios we had expected when the strike was started,” said Cheung Chi-ming, 52, a stevedore who works for another contractor. “I’ll have to continue fighting as we have no way out.”

Dozens of the workers have pitched tents surrounding Li’s 70-story Cheung Kong Center in the business district after a protest march on April 17 as government mediators struggled to narrow the differences. 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.

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 on April 17, compared with the demand for a 23 percent increase.

Rising Costs

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 former British colony.

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.

Global Stevedoring Service, which employs fewer than 200 workers, will shutter after its contract with Hongkong International Terminals ends on June 30, the company said in an e-mailed statement.

“We have been willing to talk to the workers since the outbreak of the strike, but we couldn’t reach an agreement with the workers during several meetings,” Global Stevedoring said. “We have clearly expressed that we can’t satisfy the union’s demand.”

Widening Protests

Hundreds of port workers surrounded Cheung Kong Center on April 17, holding placards demanding better pay and shouting slogans against Li. Police and security guards are patrolling the area.

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.”

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 the union. The workers had a pay cut in 2003 during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak.

Work to Rule

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.

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.

Hongkong International will make arrangements to minimize the impact on its operations of Global Stevedoring’s expected closing, and will help the workers, it said yesterday.

Shares of Hutchison Port closed unchanged at 82 cents in Singapore trading.