From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, You’re listening to ReWork.
[MUSIC: “Kiara” by Bonobo]
I’m Stefanie Ritoper
and I’m Saba Waheed.
SW: We live in a global market, and most of the clothing and electronics that we use are made halfway around the world. They’re transported across the ocean by people that seem so different and so far away from us. When we delve deeper into our struggles, we find that we have far more in common than we think.
Today’s story is about solidarity. How our struggles across the globe are connected. And as it turns out, how we need each other to succeed.
SR: This week on ReWork, we bring you a story all the way from Hong Kong. Join us as we hear from Stephen, a dock worker, and Loy, a union leader who, together, spearheaded the Hong Kong Dock Workers’ Strike in the spring of 2013.
Li Ka-Shing is the richest man in Hong Kong — in fact, he’s the richest man in all of Asia. He has a quintessential rags to riches story. His story began in poverty. He dropped out of school when he was 12 years old and was working full time by the age of 14. Within a year, at 15, he was financially supporting his family. Today, he oversees 270,000 employees in 52 countries and is an avid philanthropist. In Hong Kong, many people consider Li Ka-Shing a hero.
He owns Hong Kong International Terminals, also known as HIT. And that’s where our story takes place today.
SW: One worker at the docks is Stephen Chan. He has been a dock worker for over 20 years.
Like Li Ka-Shing, Stephen grew up poor. He lived in a community house where each family would live in a room and share a common area. Stephen’s only personal space was his bed.
SC: Everything do in there, sleeping, eating, I did my homework, so my childhood is quite in poor way, but in that time, so many child were living in that way, so I don’t feel lonely.
SW: Also like Li Ka-Shing, Stephen had to give up an education to start working. Before arriving at the docks, Stephen worked in construction and then as a school teacher. But the wages were too low for him to support his new family. At the time, becoming a dock worker was appealing.
SC: I must go to work in misery to help the family. This is the main reason why I go to the terminal. And by the way, at that time, the wages of terminal is quite good.
SR: The pay was good, and working at the terminal promised 24 to 48 hours of rest between shifts. That kind of time off was enticing. The Hong Kong International Terminal is the third busiest container port in the world, just after Singapore and Shanghai. Stephen worked in the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals, in the north-western part of the harbor. It consists of nine container terminals and handles up to 18 million cargo boxes.
[MUSIC by Broadway Project]
SW: So, what exactly is a day in the life of a dock worker like? Around 100-150 workers work alongside Stephan in the terminal. Day in and day out, their job is to move heavy containers to and from ships. Some operate huge cranes that move the containers while others work to catalogue them. The companies don’t allow workers to know what each container holds. But they log critical information about them: their origin, their weight– the kind of information that helps keep track of the shipments. Workers move, log, and unload containers until all the contents of the ships are on land. Unloading one ship takes an average of 4 hours.
But the working conditions were terrible.
SC: In the dock we must work 24 hours, in three shifts. Each shift one pay. You must work 3 shifts so you can get more money, otherwise you can, you get only one shift money cannot afford for living.
SR: The company pays by the 8 hour shift, and the pay is super low. This means workers often work three back-to-back shifts–that’s 24 hours straight–to make ends meet. During these shifts they receive no meal breaks and often end up sleeping on the floor.
SC: I sleep on the floor almost 16 years, and so many workers in the house, so no room. Sometimes you must sleep anywhere, sometimes in front of a toilet, because you’re so tired, you must sleep no matter what place. It’s quite difficult living condition.
SR: Those workers who operate the cranes aren’t allowed to leave their cabins during their shifts, even to use the restroom. The terminal has cameras all over to enforce these conditions. And on top of that, the work environment is loud and messy.
SC: When we work it’s noisy. The truck noise, the crane noise, and the docks all around, the gasoline, so that when you’re eating, with water that touch of gasoline.
[MUSIC: Black Sands by Bonobo]
SW: Aside from the chaotic terminal and poor water quality, the temperatures can be extreme, reaching as high as 111 degrees fahrenheit. Workers do not get a break, even in the presence of gale force winds. Working at the docks under these conditions can be deadly. According to workers, accidents happen regularly, but no one reports them to the Labor Department.
SR: As time passed, even the pay that attracted Stephen to the job became a problem. At the height of Hong Kong’s economic crisis in 2003, the company lowered workers’ salaries. By the end of 2008, during the second financial crisis, wages had dropped to less than 30% of what they had been when Stephen began working. Yet, when Hong Kong’s economic situation began to improve, the dock workers’ salaries did not recover with it. In the past 17 years, their salary has never increased, but the work intensified. Where before a shipside team of 8 workers was responsible for 15 containers per hour. Now, a team of 6 workers became responsible for 21 containers in the same amount of time.
SW: Stephen and other dock workers kept working, because they had to, to make ends meet.
SC: When I joined the dock workers I don’t care anything around me. My purpose is only take care my family only. At that time the social work I don’t care, I just take care my living.
SW: But growing up, Stephen’s mother had taught him that it was important to look out for others. She used to say to him that “the poor must help the poor.” So when the the working conditions on the dock became more extreme, Stephen couldn’t help but take action.
SC: When I start at the dock I see many, many, cruel treatment to the workers by the company. They don’t give any, even a dollar money can give the workers. As my character I grew family with all the workers. I living with them, eating with them, big family, as I said, poor must help poors.
SW: Stephan realized he needed to support not just his family at home but also his family on the dock. This is when Stephen reached out to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, where he met Loy. Loy would help him form the Union of Hong Kong Dock Workers.
Loy: He come to our union hall and then we discussed. In that time Steven was very quiet and not much to say. Not very like, a very talkative person, not outstanding person but–
SR: It’s very hard to believe because he gives an impression of being very talkative, very friendly.
Loy: After he joined the union, he come more active there. And then you know, he was such a very outstanding person. Provocative person that you can easily pinpoint but actually he got his own character and charisma around workers. Then we gradually brought him into our committee.Then he was our president and then up to two terms he stepped down for a younger men to be our president in Hong Kong Dockers Union.
[MUSIC: Ghost Ship – Bonobo]
SR: In 2011 the Union of Hong Kong Dock Workers organized their first big action. They discovered that the company was going to reduce their wages to even lower levels than they were in 1996.
Workers managed to mobilize 400 union members. As a result, they won a partial pay increase per shift. Members who weren’t a part of the union also got a pay increase, but it was smaller. Even though it was only a minor victory, it gave Stephen more confidence and helped him recruit more people into the union.
SC: We can only share the pain, not share the gain, so that we are very angry also, so I feel that it’s a good time to encourage my workers, to fight back this. I also set up slogan. We are the same ocean. In order to unite all the workers in the terminal. Nothing go by single. If you fight in single, low result.
SR: Stephen and the dockworkers came up with a slogan that brought them together: “We are all on the same ocean.”
In 2012, inflation rates were at 8% and entering into 2013, inflation rates stood at 5%. The dock workers were having trouble keeping up – and you have to remember, they lived in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities in the world. In January of 2013, the workers asked for a pay increase but HIT did not reply. It wasn’t until March when the dock workers asked again with a threat of striking that HIT responded with a mere 5% increase offer to match the inflation rate. But this was too little, too late.
SW: We’re at the Port of Hong Kong. 200 workers from the the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions have just decided to strike. At first, only workers from one of the five private companies show up and the strikers are uncertain if they have enough people to stop the work.
But soon, more workers begin to join until there are over 500 workers occupying the terminal port. Now posing a significant threat to HIT, one of the companies goes to court and gets a temporary injunction, claiming that the workers must evacuate the terminal or they will be arrested.
The strikers are sitting inside the terminal. It’s raining outside and the they can see the police waiting. Stephen is among the workers and a key organizer of the strike. This is the biggest and most dangerous step that they have taken yet, and they cannot turn back.
Stephen feels the weight of their actions on his shoulders.
SC: So after we discussion with the committee, the strike committee telling everybody how the going on. The decision is we must going on to go out continue fighting except the street worker. We must move out the terminal before midnight 12 hours, so I ask my member, I ask my union members, did I take a wrong decision. Did I take a wrong decision?
SR: The strikers demanded a 23% pay increase, an annual salary review, and above all, recognition of the trade union’s right to negotiate with employers.
The decision to strike was a hard one. Strikes are rare in Hong Kong and they were striking against Li Ka-shing, one of the most powerful tycoons in the world.
Li Ka-shing was a successful person. But more than that, he also carried an excellent reputation and was well respected by the masses.
Loy: His legendary person in Hong kong because when he was a boy he just had $2 with him from China and then he build up his kingdom with his bare hands and own efforts and then in the 80s or early 90s, people pretty much admired him and some people treat him as a role model.
SR: On top of that, at the beginning of the strike they only had $3,900 to fund the campaign.
But the first day of the strike was the easiest. It felt good to defy HIT. As the days wore on, though, it grew difficult to keep the momentum going. The odds were against them and people started to lose hope. It became harder and harder not to question how much longer this was going to go on.
Loy: I think you know we experience all the emotional frustration doing the strike based, you know, mockation, repayment, and then you know they have to their pay bills and credit card repayments and everything. And then some of the strikers still have pressure from their family. Although most of the family members of our strikers is pretty much supportive. But some of them were facing some pressures from their family also. So I think throughout the strike we, of course their is time for laughing but most of the time its very under very high level of pressure.
[MUSIC: Black Sands by Bonobo]
The pressure on the strikers was building. They were taking on more and more debt with each passing day. Their families, though mostly supportive, were becoming wary.
But the strike was beginning to work.
From the second day of the strike, the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Left 21 organized students to help. Support from outside the docks was growing, however slowly.
On the ninth day, the students began publishing a daily paper reporting on the progress of the strike. In addition to that, they were increasingly active in social media, attracting a wider range of students and workers to their cause.
Stephen was incredibly grateful.
SC: I go to the central, give the flower to the student. I am also crying. Be brave, be brave. When they reach the terminal our workers, about 150, stand in until the strike sign. I hold every student, I hold very tight, thank you so much. They fighting close to the workers, also get close to the whole Hong Kong Society. This very very exciting to everybody.
SR: Some of the workers have even attributed their decisions to keep striking to the students. Seeing young people standing beside them gave them no excuse to leave.
Fifteen days in, no more than 20 dock workers returned to work. 120,000 containers were unmoved with ships experiencing delays of up to 60 hours that equalled daily losses of half a million dollars. HIT began to feel the effects of the strike and attempted to coerce the strikers to go back to work, offering them what they needed most — money.
SC: If you return the terminal you can get thousand thousand dollar but no one accept that, this quiet strong fighting feeling.
SW: The strikers remained resolute and the longer they held on, the better things got. Media coverage grew wider and wider and their presence on social media grew greater. And that’s when support began to pour in from all over Hong Kong.
[MEDIA CLIP Introducing May Day]
SR: Now over a month into the strike, Hong Kong has filled with protests in support of the dock workers and in celebration of International Workers Day. The streets are crowded with people dressed in extravagant and elaborate costumes. Colorful signs and flags rise above the masses, demanding for better treatment from Li Ka-shing and his company.
[MEDIA CLIP On Li Ka-shing and the Why the Costumes are there]
[MUSIC: Antenna – Bonobo]
SW: Coverage of these strikes made the Dock Workers’ cause an international concern. Donations began to arrive from the West Coast longshore union in the United States, the International Federation of Transport Workers, transport workers unions in Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands, and individuals from all over the world. Pretty soon, their funds of less than 4 thousand dollars grew to over $1 million. But it was more than the monetary support that made the difference.
We asked Loy what moment stood out to him most during the strike.
Loy: I think I’m like Stephen you know. I pretty much a tough person then. I seldom show them my emotions and I show them cry in front of the strikers. You know for one time. I took of my good workers there are my domestic workers from the Philippines, Thailand from Nopal. They visited us and they said that we are all poor working craft in Hong Kong and we don’t have much to bring to you but we have some soup for you.
You know soup is actually very important for the Cantonese.yeah. and so they bring along their soup to the workers and said we don’t have much to share. So we bring along our soup and you know we working class people, we have to always to look after each other take care of each other so there is such a touching moment for me and then only one time I remember crying in front of the strikers.
SR: Sometimes it isn’t the money or that final victory that makes the biggest difference in the end. Sometimes it’s just a cup of soup and kind words that lets you know people understand your struggle, that they are standing at your side. Hong Kong workers were making connections between people from different backgrounds, and their story was traveling all over the world.
[MUSIC: Antenna by Bonobo]
The dockworkers sat at the negotiating table again and the conversations intensified. At each meeting representatives from HIT and the three subcontractors were present. The workers refused to negotiate without all parties at the table.
On the fortieth day of the strike, the dock workers finally signed an agreement. It wasn’t perfect but it was a dramatic change. They received a 9.8 percent wage increase, non-retaliation against strikers, and a written agreement.
SC: Now we don’t need to sleep on the floor nowaday. He supply the bunk bed two layer, and in the bathroom we have hot water and cold water. In the past only cool water, even in the winter, the temperature only 7 centigrade. You also use the cold water. Nowaday hot and cold water and a water supply around the working place. The working conditions is changed.
The contractors also agreed to improve the conditions for the crane workers, starting with meal and toilet breaks.
SC: In the past time they only do everything in the driving room. You mean what? Everything, eating, they don’t allow to leave his driving room, don’t allow it, it changed. There’s one of the successful.
In the wake of the strike, the public opinion of had Li Ka-Shing shifted.
Loy: we exposed two picture. Actually, he is no longer a legendary role model for the Hong Kong people. He became a symbol of exploitation and capitalist in Hong Kong.
SW: While this was a huge win, the dockworker’s agreement is only the beginning. Places like Hong Kong are opening up for workers to assert their rights. According to Loy, this is due in no small part to international solidarity.
Loy: I think like what Steven said, “ We are all on the same ocean”. So you know we are working past no matter which language we speak no matter really where we live I think we are all working class people and we have shared similar emotions and similar experience.
SW: Stephen remains one of the core leaders of the Union of Hong Kong Dockworkers. Loy manages organization and support within the transportation and logistics sector of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
SC: I think it’s necessary to send a message to the world: we must help each other, we must do something good for the people, this my basic feeling. I am not a political people. I am just a common man, not a leader, just common man.
SR: We may live and work on different coasts, but we share the same ocean. And for one community of workers to succeed, we must all join in solidarity. Us for them and them for us.
[MUSIC: Kiara by Bonobo]
SR: This show covered the 2013 Hong Kong Dockworker Strike. Thanks to Stephen Chan and Loy Wong for sharing their stories with us. We’d also like thank the Yvonne Yen Liu, Ellen Friedman and the International Workers of the World for connecting us with Stephen and Loy.
You’re listening to ReWork a program of UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This week’s show was produced by Tyler Milles, Jessica Garcia, Saba Waheed, Stefanie Ritoper and Quincy Surasmith. Music supervision by Francisco Garcia Nava.
SW: To find out more about the show, and to catch up on previous shows, visit our website at rework radio dot org. There you can find more information about how to get involved and also subscribe to our podcast. Tweet your reactions to at rework underscore radio or send us an email at reworkat IRLE.UCLA.edu
Until next time re-think, re-work!
From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, You’re listening to ReWork.