Asia’s richest man is under siege. At the foot of the gleaming Cheung Kong centre, home to Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg and the offices of billionaire Li Ka-shing, hundreds of striking dock workers have set up camp.
“Richest in Asia, meanest in the world,” read the hand-drawn placards around the makeshift village of blue tarpaulin and one-man tents. Above the information booth hangs a large image of Mr. Li’s head, complete with devil horns and vampire fangs.
A High Court decision on Thursday means that the workers will be allowed to stay there for at least another week despite attempts by Mr. Li’s company to “prevent trespassing, obstruction and occupation” of the area.
The walkout, now a month long, is an attempt by the dockers to win better pay and working conditions from their employers at the city’s Kwai Tsing terminal, part of a network that makes Hong Kong the third-busiest seaport in the world. They complain that their real wages have fallen in the past 17 years, while their working conditions have deteriorated. Many work 24-hour shifts without toilet or lunch breaks, said Lee Cheuk Yan, the strike organiser.
On the other side is Hongkong International Terminals, which is owned by Mr. Li’s Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. group. It runs the facility, although the 450 protesting workers were mainly hired by subcontractors. HIT said it had “tried its best to facilitate negotiations between all parties concerned.”
“This is a fight against the big corporations, and their monopolies,” said Mr. Lee. “People in Hong Kong are genuinely angry. [They] feel exploited in all aspects of their lives. Through supporting the strike, the people of Hong Kong can voice their anger.”
While the dispute has damaged the city’s reputation as a shipping hub and forced some vessels to dock elsewhere, it has also served to highlight the growing income divide and widespread poverty in one of Asia’s wealthiest cities. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that income distribution in Hong Kong is on a par with Guatemala and Honduras, while the city’s Gini coefficient, which measures wealth and poverty, is double the OECD average.
China’s economic boom of the past decade has brought wealth and jobs to the city, but it has also pushed living costs up. Starkest of all is the rise in property prices, which have more than doubled since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, to become the world’s most expensive on a square foot basis.
Meanwhile, a handful of big businesses continue to dominate all aspects of the economy. For example, Hutchison’s core businesses include supermarkets, energy, hotels, telecommunications and property development.
“It has not just happened in the docks, it has happened in all sectors,” said Wong Hung, professor of social work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Inflation is coming back, housing prices are rising, food prices are rising. It’s placing much higher pressure on grassroots people.”
Leung Chun-ying, who became Hong Kong’s chief executive a year ago, vowed to do more to help the city’s poor, and to be more “proactive” in the economy, although in this dispute the government has tried to act as a go-between, so far without success.
The dock workers are demanding a pay increase of about 20 per cent, which they say reflects the difficult working conditions, and will go some way to reverse the erosion of their spending power. The company has offered the equivalent of 7 per cent in a mixture of pay and benefits.
For Hong Kong, the strike is a classic David-versus-Goliath matchup, only this time the big man seems to be winning. The operator says that the terminal is already back to around 80-to 90-per-cent operating capacity, after it hired new contract workers. Waiting times at the port have come down to 20-25 hours, down from around 60 hours in the early days of the strike, but still far above the standard three hours before the walkout, according to HIT.
Meanwhile, public support has been strong, but largely confined to cash donations, which have already reached $7-million HK ($900,000 U.S.). That has built a buffer for the strikers, who show no signs of giving in.
“We are stuck here in a way,” said Mr Lee. “We can sustain onwards because of the support of the people of Hong Kong.”