Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

We are on the Same Sea: HK Dock Workers Strike

On 6 May 2013, the 40-day strike by Hong Kong dock workers came to an end. Despite media criticism that this was a lose-lose ending for both the employers’ and the workers’ side, I think this long-term industrial action by Hong Kong dock workers was actually a milestone. It served to demonstrate the power of production, to show the solidarity of the whole society, and above all to speak out with a claim for decent working conditions! The purpose of this paper is to connect the recent Hong Kong dock strike with European dock workers; after all, we are on the same sea.

Starting on 28 March 2013, a group of some 200 dock workers took industrial action against the Hong Kong International Terminal Ltd (HIT), which belongs to Hutchison Port Holdings, owned by Mr. Li Ka-shing. However much profit Mr. Li declared that his company had made, the workers denounced those profits for being the product of their 24-hour work shifts without breaks (not even toilet breaks), no fixed holidays, no formal meal periods, years without a single pay rise, and a total disregard for occupational safety and health hazards. That is the reason that they stood up to ask not only for a pay rise but also for reasonable working conditions, including mealtime and toilet breaks. It sounds unbelievable that such a successful businessman as Mr. Li doesn’t understand these basic principles of how to treat his employees. This 40-day strike by the Hong Kong dock workers therefore exposed the dark or ignorant side of capitalists’ profit-making processes. More importantly, those dock workers were not alone: though they were the ones who were on the front line, they had support from the whole of society. Students, teachers, NGOs and different sectors of workers not only collectively pledged to support the dock workers, they also raised funds for dock workers to provide them with a daily allowance while they were on strike. The success of this 40-day strike, as a result, can’t be judged by the media’s superficial criticism that the 9.8 per cent pay rise secured by the workers in the end didn’t meet their initial demand of 20 per cent. It was a mobilisation of the whole society, a grave slap in the face of the capitalists’ heaven, the Asian financial and cargo hub, Hong Kong. It is also a reminder to the world that society has the strength to resist, as long as workers realise that they have the right to withhold their power of production.

All capitalists have similar faces, and so what Hong Kong dock workers are facing now had already been experienced by their counterparts in European ports. With a longer history of strikes, and indeed geographically connected by water, European dockworkers have the strength to defend their rights in the European Union (EU). According to a 2011 conference paper by Mònica Clua Losada (‘Trading solidarity: dockworkers and the EU liberalisation of port services’), European dock workers had not only successfully mobilised thousands of dockworkers across the Europe, but they also knew how to use the resources they had to achieve their demands, e.g. relentlessly writing letters to national MPs to pressure them to make a decision at EU level (Clua Losada, 2011: 14–15). In Clua Losada’s paper, I didn’t find any difference between UK dockworkers and European dockworkers, or French dockworkers and Spanish dockworkers; rather, it seems the identity of being a dockworker is stronger than national identity. Certainly the geographical connection in Europe makes it easier for dockworkers to exhibit solidarity, although as Clua Losada indicates, international solidarity was not a natural choice for dockworkers in Europe; but dockworkers felt more interconnected due to their daily work (Clua Losada, 2011: 9).


Compared to European dock workers, certainly the recent Hong Kong dock workers’ action still has a long way to go, in that Hong Kong dock workers have so far managed to improve their material conditions through strike action, whereas European dockworkers have already influenced the policy-making process in the EU. However, this is one of the starting signs in Asia that workers are standing up to challenge the capitalists. Furthermore, in many other sectors, capitalists took advantage of the trend of globalisation, for the reason that capitalists can easily withdraw their capital if the labour conditions don’t meet their demands, therefore creating a vicious ‘race to the bottom’ exploitation of workers. This doesn’t work the same way for the dockworkers. A more globalised cargo trade needs more dockworkers in each port; even though many docks already have more mechanical help, for instance cranes, machines can never totally replace workers at the dockside. There is a real possibility for dockworkers to achieve international solidarity, through the very process of globalisation, as European dockworkers’ experience has shown. I hope we don’t need to wait too long for Shenzhen or Shanghai dockworkers to unite together with Hong Kong dockworkers; after all, we are all on the same sea.


  1. Great post, Chun-Yi. I wonder if there is a larger historical context to these strikes(?) As far as I know the dockworkers in Hong Kong and the Star Ferry workers have a long tradition of withdrawing their labour - going back half a century at least. Are these present strikes so unique, or are they part of a wider historical precedent?

  2. Well, good question there Gary! You got my weak point! I have to confess that while I was writing this small piece, I didn't know of the historical context. However I was very aware the dockworkers have more power than workers in other sectors because of the nature of their job is cross borders. This point is learned from Monica's paper, though having said that it also wasn't easy for European dockers to form an 'identity without nationality' (maybe still not quite there yet...).

    To answer your question with my modest knowledge about dockworkers in HK, I'd say that it wasn't the first time, and it is certainly not the last time.of HK dockers' strikes. Therefore it might not be unique in a sense that 'it happened just now', but it is a worthy watching/analyzing phenomena from a societal perspective, as the dockers had great support from HK society; and from a global perspective, as I tried to draw an experience from European dockers to the possibility of Asian dockers' unity.