The current strike taking place in Hong Kong’s ports isn’t just the biggest one the territory has seen in years but is one that reveals some fault lines in local politics, and the viciousness of the attitudes towards labor of the major part of the empire of Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing.
It is a situation that could develop an international dimension given the global port interests of the company at the center of the dispute, Hong Kong International Terminals (HIT), a unit of Hutchison International, which in turn is a part of Li’s Cheung Kong real-estate based empire.
The strike, which has now been in progress for more than three weeks, is over the pay of port workers who have had no increase for some years and who are now demanding a 20 percent hike. It is in theory not against HIT but against those companies that actually employ the labor as HIT subcontractors. But despite protestations, these subcontractors are not genuinely independent companies but set-ups designed to create intermediaries between HIT and the workers to hold down wages and provide maximum flexibility for the company. One has since declared that it going out of business because of the strike, but this is mainly regarded by the workers as a manipulative move.
The strike is in effect being led by the Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the two Hong Kong-wide union groupings and the one associated with the pro-democracy camp in local politics and the non-Communist camp internationally. Its most prominent figure is Lee Cheuk-yan, a highly articulate member of the Legislative Council.
The CTU leadership in this dispute has put its rival the Communist-affiliated Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) in an awkward spot. It can’t be seen as not backing workers’ interests while on the other hand its close relationship with the government, which its legislators almost invariably support, cannot be seen to encourage strikes.
Not only does the confederation enjoy a cozy relationship with the big bosses but Beijing would be most unhappy to see strike activity being encouraged in Hong Kong, which would not go unnoticed across the border. The FTU does however enjoy the backing of the government, which invited it into talks about the strike even though it had had no involvement. It even transpired that one FTU official was a board member of one of the labor-supplying companies!
But there is another political issue here as well. Li Ka-shing was a backer of loser Henry Tang’s bid last year to become Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Tang’s super wealthy backers continue to keep their distance from the winner of that contest, Leung Chun-ying, and seem to want to take a tougher line with the strikers than the government and FTU, which want to be seen as peacemakers, would like.
HIT has even raised the temperature by taking out full page advertisements in almost all local newspapers – the anti-government Apple Daily excepted – not merely defending itself but making personal attacks on Lee Cheuk-yan claiming he is using the workers for his political ends.
Although the company claims that the workers involved already often earn HK$20,000 a month, or almost double the median Hong Kong wage, they can only do so by working extremely long shifts in difficult conditions.
So far as can be judged, the strikers have considerable public support and receive financial support from sympathetic members of the public, as well as from some international labor groups. A populace that once regarded Li Ka-shing as a rags-to-riches hero now more often see him as one of a tiny group of mega-businesses that operate the oligopolies controlling the territory’s property, utilities, public transport and supermarkets. Not only is Li Hong Kong’s richest man but his chief lieutenant Canning Fok, the man behind some of the personal attacks on unionist Lee, is Hong Kong’s highest paid salary (and more) earner.
The strike has caused much inconvenience to shippers and may result in Hong Kong losing more of its cargo-handling business to mainland ports. But some see HIT’s intransigence as designed for that purpose as it has large investments in ports in Shenzhen and elsewhere so might suffer little net loss.