HONG KONG faced a buildup of cargo vessels waiting to load and unload on its famed Victoria Harbour as the first day of talks last Wednesday between striking dock workers and contractors at the city’s container port failed to yield any results.
The talks resumed Thursday as negotiators looked for an agreement that would end the two-week-old strike affecting the Kwai Chung container terminal, RTHK radio reported.
Although nothing was agreed in the first day of talks, Labor and Welfare Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said the meeting was a good start.
Earlier, Transport Secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung told legislators he believed the impact of the strike at the Kwai Tsing container terminals would only be temporary, the Hong Kong newspaper The Standard said. He acknowledged that shipping companies had been forced to change their schedules, and some freight had been delayed.
But he said that as long as the terminal resumed normal operation as soon as possible, the impact on the territory’s economy should be minimal.
Trade union representatives who attended the talks Wednesday said the meeting had run out of time before the dock workers could discuss with the port contractors the core issue of pay hikes, and complaining the meeting was too short, reports filtering from the southern Chinese city said.
As of this writing. the world’s third-largest port was entering its 17th day of a major traffic jam, with the dockworkers having effectively shut down parts of the port controlled by Hongkong International Terminals (HIT), news portal Quartz reported.
A HIT representative has said that the port operator’s terminals were operating at about 80% of their usual levels and that 90 vessels so far had bypassed the company’s Kwai Tsing container terminals since the strike action began.
Industry insiders cited by the South China Morning Post said the strike, which began on March 28, has hit the cargo volume handled at the container terminals.
Early estimates are that the strike has caused a 20-50% decline in the amount of cargo HIT’s terminals can process. But this has forced some shippers to divert vessels to other ports. The Association of Freight Forwarders estimates that some 120,000 container were stuck at the port.
The talks to end the strike ran into complications when the unions involved tabled different demands, and contractors failed to reach consensus with any of them, the Post reported.
The newspaper said the organizer of the strike, the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU), met the two contractors – Everbest Port Services and the Global Stevedoring Service Company – and the strike-hit port operator, HIT, for just over three hours in the morning.
HIT, which had previously refused to get involved, agreed to attend Wednesday’s meetings, but only as an observer.
“It was a rational talk,” the report quoted strike organizer Stanley Ho Wai-hong as saying. “It was just that three hours was too short for us to tell them all our demands. I don’t understand why [the Labour Department] needed to invite the other unions for a meeting in the afternoon.”
He said the meeting was “forced to end” after the contractors said they needed to break for lunch, since they had to meet the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Labour Unions (FHKKLU) later.
The meeting was so short that the confederation did not have time to press its demand for a 17% to 24% pay rise. Currently paid HK$50 ($6.44) per hour, the workers are demanding HK$62.50. The workers are also asking for an eight-hour shift and lunch and toilet breaks.
The confederation represents the 500 dock workers on strike at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals.
Worker representative Wong Shiu-cheung said the contractors had shown willingness to listen to them, but had not yet responded to their demands.
The workers were willing to resume talks at anytime, Wong said. “We are willing to meet again even if it is at 12 midnight. We are willing to talk,” he said.
One contractor, Everbest Port Service, said on the eve of the talks it was unlikely that it would offer a rise of 20%, but that it was prepared to offer something in the range of 5%.
“If various parties concerned can display a genuine spirit of compromising, mutual understanding and sincerity, and approach the talks pragmatically … I am sure there will be a solution at the end of the day,” said Labor Secretary Cheung on Wednesday while the talks were under way.
Trade union leaders supporting the striking workers and the city’s media have questioned the contractors’ meetings with Hong Kong’s two main rival trade unions, one of which is not taking part in the strike.
“Industrial disputes in our city always have an element of politics attached due to the involvement of the two main union groups, the Beijing-loyalist Federation of Trade Unions and the democracy-supporting Confederation of Trade Unions,” the South China Morning Post wrote in an editorial.
“But whereas such matters usually only involve employers, unions and workers, this time a host of other organizations have joined in to promote agendas… What began as a demand for higher wages and better conditions by 450 workers has turned into a circus, with all manner of politicized barrows being pushed.”
The workers said they don’t understand why Cheung invited the FTU and the FHKKLU, two labor groups that cannot speak for them. They insisted only the CTU can represent them in the negotiations.
Lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, who is also general secretary of the confederation, said Cheung had made the situation complicated and should be liable if the talks fail.––With reports from South China Morning Post, The Standard, Quartz, Associated Press
Photo courtesy of Transport and Housing Bureau, The Government of HongKong Special Administrative Region