Strike slows Hong Kong port activities

by Array

HONG KONG, China—Striking Hong Kong dockworkers refused to back down Wednesday in a week-long pay dispute that is slowing cargo shipments at the world’s third busiest port.

Several hundred dockworkers and supporters camped out on the road in front of a container terminal. The workers are demanding a 20 percent pay raise to make up for pay cuts in past years, but subcontractors supplying labour to port operators are only offering five percent.

Hutchison International Terminals operates the terminal where the workers are striking. Officials say the action is costing the company five million Hong Kong dollars ($652,800) per day.

The company has distanced itself from the dispute, saying the stevedores are not Hutchison employees. It said terminal operations are continuing but truck traffic in the area where the strikers are camped has slowed down.

The workers want Hutchison to negotiate directly with their union—the Union of Hong Kong Dockers (UHKD)—about pay. They’re also demanding resolution of some health and safety problems, such as lack of bathroom breaks.

Hong Kong is the world’s third busiest port by container volume, behind the mainland Chinese cities of Shanghai and Shenzhen, according to World Shipping Council data.

“There are some disruptions, particularly for the importers,” which are seeing some shipments of perishable goods like fruit rot because they’re sitting on the dock longer, said Willy Lin, chair of the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council. “On the export side it’s slower to get the containers out of the terminals.”

Lin said he has heard truck drivers are one- to three-hours late picking up and dropping off shipments because of the strike, but “so far we haven’t seen major disruptions”.

The Shippers’ Council, which represents importers, exporters and manufacturers, has advised its members to arrange backup plans in case the strike drags on, including having shipments move through other ports in China, such as nearby Shenzhen.

Some shipping companies are already taking precautions. Japan’s Mitsui OSK Lines reported several delays and diverted two ships away from Hong Kong because of the strike. The company said a Europe-bound ship would skip the city and instead stop in Vietnam, where Hong Kong cargo would be transferred to another ship to reach its final destination.

Hong Kong is a major transfer point for goods coming in and out of mainland China. It was the world’s busiest port for years, handling shipments of jeans, shoes and electronics manufactured in southern China’s Pearl River Delta for export to consumers in the West. But it has been overtaken by Shanghai and Shenzhen in recent years.

Lin said Hong Kong’s port still holds an edge over its rivals in mainland China because it’s faster and more efficient. Hong Kong can turn around a container in 18-22 hours while Shenzhen needs 24, he said.

Lin said other regional rivals around Asia such as Singapore, Busan in South Korea and Kaohsiung in Taiwan “all want a slice of this pie” and the dispute will hurt Hong Kong’s image as a dependable port if it drags on.

Hutchison operates 12 berths at four of Hong Kong’s nine container terminals and two others with a joint venture partner. The company is controlled by Hutchison Whampoa Ltd.