In a sense, industrial relations problems are by definition the fault of the bosses; a management that does its job properly doesn’t get trouble from employees. The exact rights and wrongs at Kwai Tsing container terminals are complicated by the fact that port operator Hongkong International Terminals outsources the actual dock work. Such an arrangement can encourage exploitation of workers if the operator drives such a hard bargain that the sub-contractors have to underpay the employees (as happened when the Hong Kong government outsourced cleaning back in pre-minimum wage days). The operator can wash its hands of any involvement, and indeed HIT hasn’t put a press release on-line since November.
Much of the press and industry would have us believe that this strike is a threat to Hong Kong’s port (or ‘status’ as a leading one) and this is in turn a threat to the well-being of the city itself. The truth is, the port is a sunset industry – even without factoring in any long-term decline of the Pearl River Delta’s low-value, high-volume export manufacturing sector. If, horror of horrors, the berths and cranes move to nasty upstart Shenzhen, what happens? We lose thousands of filthy trucks clogging up our roads and thousands of containers piled up all over the place; meanwhile, we gain lots of semi-downtown space for useful things like housing and parks.
What really makes this strike interesting – political, to be exact – is that HIT is part of tycoon Li Ka-shing’s empire. The sensible, harmonious pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions is largely standing on the sidelines in the dispute, while the pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions and the Labour Party are taking high-profile roles. Students and other activists are also joining in and raising funds for the strikers. Who said dock workers aren’t sexy? This conflict has the potential to attract much broader support from that sizable part of the community with a grudge against property tycoons and the establishment in general. A citywide boycott of Li’s Park N Shop supermarket chain, anyone?
But, like the prospect of the container port suddenly moving across the border, we are probably running ahead of ourselves. If anyone’s going to put pressure on the employers, it will be the government. The last thing it needs, with political reform and Occupy Central in the works, is a rallying point for anti-establishment labour and all the other opposition troublemakers and disgruntled citizenry. And let’s not forget that Beijing has just ordered Li and his fellow tycoons to support Chief Executive CY Leung’s administration. Some sort of compromise solution is more than likely. Spoilsports.
On a brighter note, I can declare the Ching Ming one-day non-weekend open, almost.