Li Ka-Shing Seen Winning Hong Kong Strike as Ships Go Faster

Billionaire Li Ka-shing moved to end a four-week strike at his docks in Hong Kong, hiring new workers to handle ships and demanding protesters leave his building in the city’s Central District.

The new workers and the return of some strikers to work has cut the waiting time for ships to an average 20-to-25 hours, compared with about 60 hours when the strike started, Hongkong International Terminals Ltd. said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. The docks are operating at about 90 percent of capacity.

The biggest industrial action ever faced by Li has led at least 100 vessels to skip Hong Kong in favor of nearby ports. Some dock workers, who are seeking better pay and working conditions, remain camped around Li’s Cheung Kong Center building in the central business district even after he gave them a noon deadline to leave.

“The gradual recovery of operation is weakening the strikers’ bargaining power,” Lawrence Li, an analyst at UOB-Kay Hian Holdings Ltd. said by phone. “It puts the workers in a very difficult situation.”

The workers, who walked out of their jobs March 28, will continue to press for better pay and working conditions, and won’t rule out further escalation of protest, said Wong Yu-loy, a representative of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers.

‘Cheung Kong Center’

“We will continue to think about escalating actions,” Wong said. “To be honest, we did expect the strike to last a long period, but I have to say that we didn’t expect it could last such a long time, four weeks. But we are determined.”

The workers surrounded Li’s 70-story building -- home to the offices of Barclays Plc and Goldman Sachs Inc. -- last week after rejecting a pay raise aimed at ending the strike. Dozens of striking workers are sleeping in tents surrounding the building. They have put up caricature pictures of Li while police and security guards patrol the area.

Cheung Kong Center told the workers that if they didn’t leave by noon, they could be subject to criminal prosecution, according to a notice the building management put up today. As of 8 p.m. in Hong Kong, the demonstrators with their tents surrounding the entrances showed no signs of moving.

The High Court of Hong Kong today refused to grant an interim injunction sought by the building’s owner to bar striking workers from demonstrating at the premises, Radio Television Hong Kong reported, citing Judge Derek Pang. Hutchison Whampoa Ltd, which owns the building through unit Turbo Top Ltd., said in a statement that the court is “set to hear arguments from all parties with regards to the injunction application next Friday.”

Occupy Movement

When protesters of the Occupy movement were given a deadline last year to leave the premises of HSBC Holdings Plc’ Asian headquarters, court bailiffs only moved them out more than two weeks later.

A section of a road around terminals in Hong Kong’s Kwai Tsing district was blocked today, according to a notice from the transport department. Some of the striking workers were demonstrating in that area.

Li is Asia’s richest man with a total wealth of $27.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Hutchison Whampoa gained 0.1 percent to HK$83.05. Hutchison Port Holdings Trust was unchanged at 83.5 cents in Singapore.

Government Mediators

Contract workers of Li’s Hongkong International were offered a 7 percent raise by their employers, compared with the workers’ demand for a 23 percent increase amid rising living costs and record home prices. Government mediators have helped narrow the differences between employers and workers, Labor Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters April 17.

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 workers’ salary demand.

The striking workers are in a weak position as they account for only a small portion of the total workforce, said Paul Tsui, chairman of Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding and Logistics Ltd., which represents 345 freight forwarders in the city.

“Even though the operations are getting better, we still hope it can be resolved soon, because it hurts everybody in the city,” Tsui said.

Shanghai, Singapore

Hongkong International Terminals is operated by Hutchison Port Holdings Trust, whose largest shareholder is Li’s Hutchison Whampoa. 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.

The striking workers represent about 12 percent of 3,500 to 3,800 contract workers Hutchison Port hires in Hong Kong, according to its latest annual report.

The daily financial loss caused by the strike has been “significantly” reduced in the last two weeks, Hongkong International said in the statement on April 23, without elaboration. The daily loss was narrowed to HK$2.4 million ($309,000) on April 5 from HK$5 million earlier, according to the company.

Evergreen Marine Corp Taiwan Ltd., which had diverted vessels to Shenzhen after the delays, hopes the labor issue can be resolved soon, it said in an e-mailed statement on April 23. Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. ships have skipped 13 dockings in the city because of the strike, it said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

The striking workers, mostly crane operators and stevedores, earn HK$55 an hour, according to the union. That’s less than the HK$60.70 they were paid in 1995, the union said. The workers had a pay cut in 2003 during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

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