In recent years there has justly been much attention on workers taking action to defend their rights in mainland China. We’ve seen major incidents in car and textile factories, and more recently the electronics sector, including Apple supplier Foxconn. There have been developments in both the legal framework and in workers’ willingness to protest, that have led to increases in pay and improvements in a number of sectors.
However the situation facing workers in Hong Kong, who while having at least on paper the right to freedom of association, lack many other basic social and legal protections, has received virtually no coverage.
This may change as a strike by dockers working for subcontractors supplying Hong Kong International Terminals (HIT) looks set to enter its 4th week.
The strike pits hundreds of crane operators and other staff on casual day rates against the owner of HIT’s parent company, and one of the worlds 10th richest men Li Ka-Shing. The dispute is taking place in an industry where workers ability to act collectively seemed to have been increasingly diminished by outsourcing and casualisation.
But the struggle is not as uneven as it looks, the ports business has been severely affected as crane operators who had been expected to work 12 hour shifts without breaks moving 35-40 cargoes an hour have stayed united and organised themselves into a union, the United Hong Kong Dockers.
They are campaigning for things that ordinary Hong Kongers can totally understand; a living wage, an end to casualisation, a reduction in excessive hours and improved health and safety conditions and they are receiving remarkable support from the wider community, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, and fellow trade unionists around the world.
Last week 4,000 marched on the offices of the Hong Kong government, demanding an end to the harassment of the dock works and legal attempts to block their protests. A support camp has grown up outside the dock gates with people bringing food and other necessities and a solidarity fund has raised over HKD5.3million, enabling strikers to receive strike pay for the protracted dispute.
Support action is spreading including students and others initiating a boycott of other companies owned by HITs ultimate owner the Hutchinson Whampoa Corporation, including one of Hong Kong’s main supermarket chains Park ‘n’ Shop.
As anyone in the UK who knows the history of the great dock strikes from which the predecessors of UNITE were formed at the end of the C19th and early C20th, both community and international solidarity are vital to win these actions. Australian and US dock workers have visited the picket lines and donated funds, the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has written to the dock owners demanding action and the International Transport Federation and Labour Start have set up an online action, please support it and encourage others to do so.