28 March 2013: It was not even 8 am, but over a hundred people had gathered outside Kwai Chung Container Terminal 6. Among them were dock workers, including stevedores and ship crews.
They were deciding on a spot to begin their industrial action for better pay and working conditions. Some of them were getting antsy and proposed to go inside the dock and stage a proper strike, while others were worried that entering the dock might trigger police clearance.
As the discussion continued, a small group of workers approached the terminal entrance and broke past the security perimeter. Then came the strike’s iconic moment, when dockers marched inside the port terminal with their supporters, holding banners. The 40-day strike against the operator company Hong Kong International Terminal (HIT), owned by the city’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, had started.
We all recall fervent moments like this, but for Stanley Ho Wai-hon, this defining moment in the recent Hong Kong independent labour movement started with drips of water. He recalls that there had been failed attempts at industrial action before, but it was “constant dripping” that wore away a stone. Stanley was an officer of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers when the strike happened.
“The Hong Kong dock terminal is often celebrated as the pulse of Hong Kong’s economy. However, it all came at the expense of the dockers’ blood and sweat.”
Stanley witnessed the dockers’ inhumane working conditions: they constantly worked under great strain; they had to eat and be relieved inside the cranes in the air, and news about industrial accidents that happened inside the port was often blocked. “How come our society sees it as if nothing’s happened?” Stanley was enraged.
The Hong Kong dock terminal is often celebrated as the pulse of Hong Kong’s economy. However, it all came at the expense of the dockers’ blood and sweat.Stanley Ho
With a strong desire to help, Stanley recruited volunteers at leftist youth organisations. They started to mobilise workers to fight for basic workers’ rights and fair pay.
They distributed leaflets at least twice a week in places where dockers hung around. They held meetings with the dockers and identified and recruited active dockers. This groundwork had been going on for half a year before the strike.
They had to keep their organising work underground. For example, Stanley once slipped inside the dock for outreach work but got caught and kicked out by security guards. He also lined up journalists to report on the dodgy working conditions at the dock and asked dockers to carry a hidden camera to the workplace to expose the issue. After the news report was published, the public’s attention was drawn to the real-life plight of the dock workers.
As the spokesperson of the dockers’ union, Stanley appeared frequently in newspapers and on TV, as if he were a striking figure. He dared not take the credit. He made it clear at every chance that the strike was led by the dockers, while he was no more than an organiser who showed solidarity with the workers and walked with them. He remembered that one time when they were rushing up a hill to get to a meeting in Central, Hong Kong’s busiest financial district, he told the dockers to go ahead without waiting for him. “No! Brothers walk together,” the dockers replied. He felt comradeship. He is still thankful for the faith that striking workers put in him ten years ago.
The strike ended after the majority of the striking workers accepted an offer of a 9.8% pay rise despite the original demand of 20%.
However, Stanley pointed out that the wage increase was not the only metric used to evaluate the success of the strike. He said that the impact of the strike was equally significant.
He takes the strike fund as an example. The dockers’ strike fund raised nearly HK$9 million, setting a record in Hong Kong labour movement history. The strike fund undoubtedly helped the striking workers. However, it was the faces of keen white-collar professionals filling up the donation boxes against the background of Hong Kong’s downtown area that boosted the striking dockers’ morale. This scene transcends the amount of their donations, and the powerful image and the values it embodies live on in society.
People from all walks of life came to support the dockers, including students, religious groups, women’s groups, politicians and popular artists. Stanley still remembers that actress Lana Wong, in her eighties at the time, came with two big boxes of apples for the dockers. Stanley also got a free lunch once during the strike. “I know you. I know what you are doing. Keep it up!” the woman at the cash desk said. These little acts of kindness and solidarity always re-energised the strike.
Ten years have passed, and the landscape of Hong Kong’s civil society has changed. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) has been disbanded, and trade unionists are now behind bars. Is it still possible to organise mass social movements in Hong Kong?
Stanley admits that he is not optimistic about the prospects for the labour movement. “A strike cannot be organised overnight; it requires long-term organisation and education to raise public awareness and gain members’ support. It is becoming more difficult to get traction in such a fragmented civil society.”
As realistic as he is, Stanley is not completely without hope. He said workers will need more time and effort to equip and organise themselves in this changing Hong Kong scene. As a Christian, though, he still has faith that “as your days are, so shall your strength be.” (Deuteronomy 33:25)