Wong Shu Kwai's hands are calloused from the 15 years he has spent as a dock worker, lashing containers at the world's third-busiest port.
For the past two weeks, though, they have been lying idle, twiddling on his phone or lighting cigarette after cigarette as the 49-year-old and hundreds of others wait listlessly in tents outside the Kwai Tsing container terminals.
“We want to go back to work,” he says. “But we need Li Ka Shing to pay us what we deserve.”
He and his colleagues say they drew daily wages of HK$1,415 in 1997, but now get just HK$1,315 (US$169). They want an extra HK$300 from their employers, contracted by Hongkong International Terminals, a unit of Li’s Hutchison Whampoa, which handles 70 per cent of the city’s volume.
The strike could end today, with talks slated under government mediation.
It marks a relatively rare episode of industrial action in Hong Kong. Labour Department statistics show that over the past decade, there have been between one and seven strikes a year, involving between 143 and 1,337 workers.
Between 2003 and 2011, there were 26 strikes in all, involving a total of 4,271 workers.
This is a far cry from the unrest during the 1950s and 1960s, when union strikes and clashes with the police were commonplace – as viewers of the latest “Ip Man” biopic set in that period might observe. In 1967 for instance, 50,000 workers – or 3.3 per cent of the Hong Kong abour force – took part in a general strike.
Sociologist Lui Tai Lok from Hong Kong University, who has studied civil unrest, notes: “Frankly, other than the early post-war years 1946-1951, the mid-1960s and early 1970s, we have enjoyed a long period of industrial peace.”
But while strikes remain few and far between today, some warn that they could gain resonance in the city for two reasons.
One, workers are increasingly frustrated with corporate behemoths and the widening income gap, says Dr Wong Hung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who studies labour organising.
“The Hong Kong people are angry about the large gap between the rich and poor, and the collusion between government and the tycoons. So it’s not just unhappiness about low wages, but also a general anger towards employers and consortiums.
“Anti-monopoly sentiment is increasing.”
Two, with the city in a state of political agitation, the role of strikes in bolstering power bases could gain significance. Recent years have seen the rise of student activists and unions, some of whom have aligned themselves with the current strike. Its organiser, Mr Lee Cheuk Yan, secretary-general of the Confederation of Trade Unions, acknowledges that his pan-Democrat Labour Party could gain politically from it, but added that “what we want is for workers to gain a fair share of the economy”.
The twin factors tap into a larger vein of politicised frustration that coincides with a significant growth in protests here in the past couple of years. There were 7,529 “public order events” – public meetings of over 50 persons or public processions of over 30 persons – here last year, the police say, the highest in the past decade. It is up from 6,878 in 2011 and a low of 1,900 in 2005.
It is important not to overstate the significance of the strike, driven by a confluence of forces unique to the industry. The port industry is largely monopolistic. There is a high degree of outsourcing. There are also fears that it is a sunset industry losing out to ports on the mainland. All these result in wage depression of dock workers – poorly educated but relatively highly paid given their specialised skills – to maintain competitiveness. Says Prof Lui: “They are no longer the ‘labour aristocrats’.”
But it is also worth noting that this strike appears to be garnering more public sympathy than other more recent industrial actions. It has received favourable coverage from local mainstream media, while its Facebook page has received 19,000 likes. A chart of the workers’ wages has gone viral. Lee says people have donated HK$3.7 million to tide the strikers over.
Says Dr Wong: “It has become not just a labour movement but one against inequality that is also supported by other groups – students, women, etcetera. What is worrying is if it has a demonstration effect on other workers [who have been] unhappy for a long time.”