On April 18, the ILWU Coast Longshore Caucus approved a solidarity contribution and delegation visit to support a historic strike by dockworkers for better pay and working conditions at the Port of Hong Kong. Up to 450 workers were involved in the job action, making it Hong Kong’s largest strike in six years. Many ships were diverted and faced long delays because of the strike.
The ILWU delegation joined Hong Kong dockers on the 41st day of their strike. “We secured a pay rise with a good percentage increase and the union is strengthened,” said Chan Chiu-wai, Organizing Coordinator for the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
Workers won 9.8% pay raises, promises of protection against retaliation, and improved working conditions. “This is an important development for dockworkers in Hong Kong and throughout the region,” said ILWU International Vice President (Mainland) Ray Familathe, who led the delegation.
While the strike marked an important step forward, Familathe noted that workers ended their strike without securing a legally-enforceable collective bargaining agreement. ILWU members were briefed within hours of their arrival about these and other challenges by the Union of Hong Kong Dockers (UHKD) and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. The strikers explained how they had squared-off against one of China’s most powerful tycoons – Li Kashing – who owns HutchisonWhampoa, Hutchison Port Holdings, and Hong Kong International Terminals.
“This was a completely different world for most of us because there were several unions involved and no history of contracts or collective bargaining laws,” said Local 34 President Sean Farley who praised the strikers for their bravery and courage. Instead of signing contracts, dockworkers in Hong Kong had traditionally been forced to rely on verbal assurances and one-sided company declarations that aren’t enforceable in court.
Other challenges included the inability to negotiate directly with terminal owner Li Ka-shing, who used a series of subcontractors to evade responsibility for the low pay and inhumane working conditions at his terminals.
Dockers take a step forward
Workers were able to win what they described as a significant “step forward” in the form of written assurances from Li Ka-shing’s four subcontractors. Workers said their strike forced the contractors to sign written assurances– falling short of legally enforceable contracts, but moving beyond verbal promises and one-sided employer declarations of the past.
This time strikers stayed strong and demanded that employers put their promises in writing, including a 9.8% pay raise for the coming year. That’s about half what workers initially demanded – but twice what the company was initially willing to pay.
Another shock to many in the ILWU delegation involved the employer practice of fining crane operators for taking bathroom or meal breaks. Fines against workers of $300 Hong Kong dollars were typical – while the daily pay for a crane operator was only $195 Hong Kong dollars—equivalent to $25.60 US dollars for a lengthy shift that can last up to three days.
As a result of the strike, companies were forced to sign confirmations that workers will now be allowed to take meal and bathroom breaks, something workers regarded as real progress because employers had initially refused to even discuss working conditions.
“Conditions on the Hong Kong docks are like the ones Harry Bridges and other workers faced in the 1930s. Employers would impose the same conditions on us if they thought they could get away with it,” said Familathe.
Re-hiring crane operators
Crane operators were concerned that they had been unable to secure written protection against retaliation and displacement before ending their strike. This was especially challenging for 100 crane operators employed by Global Stevedoring, a subcontractor who closed operations on April 18.
During their solidarity visit, ILWU members participated in an action with members of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers to demand the re-hiring of these crane operators.
“We wanted to do what we could to help these crane operators who went out on strike to secure their basic human rights,” said Familathe. On May 20, the Union of Hong Kong Dockers confirmed that 80% of the Global Stevedoring crane operators have already been re-hired by two ‘new’ contractors and are back to work.
The Union of Hong Kong Dockers expressed thanks for the donations that came from the ILWU and other unions around the world, saying: “Your passionate support and generous donations helped us to sustain the strike for forty days, and we are thankful for your unwavering support. Together with you, we have demonstrated the importance of workers’ unity in fighting not only for reasonable pay, but also for our dignity and our future.”