2013 Hong Kong Dockers’ Strike in Pictures

In March 2013, 500 sub-contracted dock workers in Hong Kong Kwai Chung Container Port, one of Asia’s busiest ports. They took over the terminal’s major traffic routes and the entrance to the company’s headquarters building.

1. An outburst of silence

In March 2013, the dock workers protested outside the headquarters of the operator company, the Hong Kong International Terminal (HIT), and its mother corporation, Hutchinson Whampao, the flagship corporation owned by Asian magnate Lee Ka-shing. The dock workers subsequently occupied the major traffic route of the terminal and began a 40-day strike, the city’s longest strike since the 1960s.

The plight of the dock workers

Long working hours

Workers were often required to work 24 hours a day. During the peak season, they needed to work shifts of 72 consecutive hours.

Low wages

Their pay in 2013 was lower than it was in 1997. In 2013, a worker working 24 hours a day earned just HK$1300, 13% lower than the HK$1480 they he arned in 1997.

Poor working environment

Dock workers had no lunch breaks. Some of the workers who operated in the air, such as crane operators, would have to eat and relieve themselves inside the crane.

The dock workers demanded a 20% pay rise, equivalent to inflation from 1997 to 2013, as well as improved working conditions. They demanded that the port operator firm recognise the union and allow the union to participate in negotiations. However, the operator only met with sub-contractors and unilaterally announced a 5% wage increase. The discontent of the dock workers had reached a boiling point, and a strike was imminent.

20 March 2013: Protest in front of HIT

28 March 2013: The picket line

The picket line was formed on the morning of 28 March 2013 in front of Gate 6 of the terminal. Civil society joined the picket line with the banner “Repay the money, Boss Lee!” to show their solidarity with the dock workers.

30 March 2013﹕Dockers march at the terminal

HIT declined to negotiate with the dock workers’ representative. The dock workers thus mobilised workers in the terminal and staged a protest. It was possibily the first march at the terminal in the history of Hong Kong.

2. Building a dock village

The dock worker strike was first initiated by stevedore workers. A few days later, more workers from different types of work, such as crane operators, joined the picket line. Crane operators, who moved containers from the ships to the container trucks, played an essential role in the terminal’s daily operations. Their participation boosted morale.

At the same time, HIT was preparing countermeasures to curb industrial action. HIT filed a costly injunction in court, banning dock workers’ representatives and others from occupying Gate 6. Violating the restraining order would be considered contempt of court. Workers opted to leave the terminal area and find other means to continue their battle. They pitched tents on the side of the road outside the port, and the dock village was built.

The strike fund

The dock workers usually received daily wages, but participating in the strike meant they received no pay. As a result, the trade union formed a strike fund to help them throughout the strike. The fund received over HK$8.9 million in donations from the people of Hong Kong, the largest strike fund raised since 1997.

Fund raising booth

1 April 2013: Protest in front of Hutchinson Whampao headquarters

On 1 April 2013, workers on strike marched to the headquarters of the Hutchinson Whampao Group in Central Hong Kong. The workers and their supporters crowded the street outside the offices. The protesters then marched along Garden Road to Government House, where they demanded the intervention of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

4 April 2013: Contractor cancelled negotiations at the last minute

Dock workers’ representatives attended a negotiation meeting at the Hong Kong Labour Department. However, the sub-contractor did not show up and cancelled the meeting at the last minute.

5 April 2013: Solidarity march from Hong Kong High Court to the government headquarters

On 5 April the striking workers marched from the High Court to the government headquarters. The workers denounced the large corporations for bullying and suppressing the strike with court injunctions, and called for government action.

7 April 2013: Solidarity march from Victoria Park to the government headquarters

On the tenth day of the strike, the trade union organised a rally from Victoria Park to the government headquarters. There was a turnout of 4,000 people. Participants made sarcastic props mocking Li Ka-shing. Workers donned headbands to show their determination and held up red roses, which symbolised workers’ dignity.

Daily media briefing

The media briefing was a daily routine at the dock village to inform the public about the latest developments of the dockers’ industrial action.

3. Relocated to the Cheung Kong Center

After three weeks of strike action, little progress was achieved. After a meeting, the strikers agreed to escalate their action.. They relocated part of the dock village to the Cheung Kong Center, the Hutchison Whampao Group’s headquarters in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district. They wanted Lee Ka-shing to respond directly.

The Hutchison Whampao Company promptly sought an injunction to prevent workers from erecting the dock village outside their buildings. The court granted the injunction. The area outside the Cheung Kong Centre, however, was a public space. The union decided to file a lawsuit and continue their battle in court.

Solidarity rally

Two solidarity rallies were held outside the Cheung Kong Centre by the union. Workers wore a T-shirt saying “Fight until the end for dignity” to demonstrate their resolve.

Children joined the demonstration at the Lee Ka-shing Mansion in solidarity with their dads. They brought colourful balloons with banners that said, “A moral man creates his money properly”, hoping “Grandpa Lee” would listen.

4. Solidarity on a local and worldwide scale

The docker strike brought together many organisations and activists in Hong Kong and throughout the globe. It was a defining moment in Hong Kong’s social movement unionism.

Given their limited resources, the dock workers deliberately engaged youth groups working on grassroots social issues and sought their assistance in raising awareness for the dock workers through a series of outreach efforts, including roadshows, to recruit them to join the trade union.

Support for the dock workers was flooding in from all corners of Hong Kong civil society, from collecting and sorting donations and supplies to putting up street roadshows to raise public awareness of the strike and fundraising for the striking staff. When the strike ended, some supporters organised a support group to assist the workers.

4 April 2013: “Labour Walk”

On 4 April 2013, scores of young people held a “Labour Walk” to show their support for the dock workers and raise public awareness of the strike. They strolled slowly from Central Hong Kong to the Kwai Chung terminal, passing through some of the busiest districts in Hong Kong. They started in the morning and arrived at the Kwai Chung Containers Port before midnight.

International solidarity

International solidarity was another highlight of the dock workers’ strikes. The dock workers successfully connected with global trade unions and received solidarity messages from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea to Africa and South America. Union representatives from the Netherlands, Australia and the USA even travelled to Hong Kong to support the dock workers.

5. The end of the strike

The dock workers eventually pushed HIT to the negotiating table. But HIT was  treacherous throughout.

On the one hand, HIT refused the workers’ demand for a 20% rise; on the other hand, it manipulated one of its sub-contractors and announced an offer of a 9.8% pay rise.

This left the strikers in a bind: the pay rise was significantly less than their demand, and the employers announced that they would not allow trade unions to join the negotiation table. However, a handful of the strikers showed fatigue. Their industrial action might lose momentum if it continued. As a result, the workers convened another meeting to decide whether to accept the employer’s offer.

The majority of the striking workers present at the meeting accepted the 9.8% pay rise, with a fraction refusing to accept it. The trade union, based on majority rule, announced the conclusion of the strike and asked the workers to return to their positions accordingly.

HIT suggested another 10% wage increase the following year. The combination of the two raises marginally fulfilled the dock workers’ initial demands. Workplace safety and hygiene also gradually improved. But retaliation ensued, and numerous employees said they were side-lined by their colleagues.

It was a hard-fought battle. And the battle continues.

“It was not the 9.8% raise that brought our strike to an end. We concluded this strike as we recognise that this is just the first of the thousands more strikes to come.”

the strike declaration at the dock village
The strike declaration written on the foam board at the dock village.

Yet, as the strike declaration written on the foam board at the dock village stated, “This is only the first strike, thousands more strikes are on their way”.

In the 40-day strike in 2013, we witnessed unity, solidarity, and the resilience and strength it embodied. The strike broadened Hong Kongers’ imagination of what a strike might be like and wrote an important chapter in Hong Kong’s independent labour movement.

What does the strike mean to Hong Kong today

 when many labor unions have been forced to disband?