Hong Kong port operator needs to learn from Shenzhen and talk to the workers

The Hong Kong dock strike is making people in the shipping industry here nervous. The headline in today’s South China Morning Post proclaimed “Strike a threat to port’s status, industry says.”

The report went on to claim that “vessels are already diverting to rival terminals and the city continues to slide down the ranks of world's leading container terminals.”  It cited figures to show that Shenzhen had already overtaken Hong Kong in terms of container throughput volume in the first two months of this year.

The man at the centre of the dispute, the managing director of Hongkong International Terminals, Gerry Yim, said his company was losing HK$5 million a day because of the strike. "Since it started, everyone, our company and other companies, are losers," he told the SCMP. "We've lost our reputation in the international shipping business."

But as workers on the picket line pointed out yesterday, if Mr Yim is concerned about his company’s reputation, he only has himself to blame for his adamant refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue over wages at the port.

Indeed, if Mr Yim wants a swift resolution to the dispute, he only has to look across the border to Shenzhen to see how they successfully and equitably handle labour disputes over there.

Six years ago, in the Spring of 2007, there was a wave of strikes by workers at container ports across Shenzhen, which included a strike on 7 April by more than 300 crane operators at the Yantian International Container Terminal. That strike led to the formation of a representative trade union at the port which then negotiated a collective agreement on wages and working conditions with Yantian management.

At that time, Shenzhen container throughput stood at 21 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) compared with nearly 24 million TEUs in Hong Kong. Shenzhen not only survived the strikes, it continued to develop and expand and eventually overtook Hong Kong.

The answer is simple Mr Yim. If you want a successful, well-run container port; Talk to the workers. You don’t even have to wait for a proper trade union to be formed because there is already an excellent workers’ organization in place, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. The same people your company got a court injunction against to remove them from the terminal on Monday.

Encouragingly, the dock workers have received substantial support from ordinary members of public in Hong Kong who understand all too well the strain of trying to make a living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. At least HK$650,000 has so far been collected and the strikers’ Facebook page 碼頭的辛酸 has so far got more than 11,000 likes.

It may be cold and wet on the picket line but the workers are determined and united and sooner or later Mr Yim is going to have to compromise. Alternatively, it is possible that his boss, Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, might replace him with someone who is willing to talk.

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