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Translation by Wv from《深圳盐田港罢工与香港葵涌码头罢工的差异与思考》(Thoughts on the differences between the Shenzhen Yantian and Hong Kong Kwai Tsing Port Strikes) by 秋火(Autumn Fire), from 工革斗研的博客, September 9, 2013. Although this is over two years old, both logistics in general and these strikes in particular are currently being revisited as key objects of investigation in certain circles (see, for example,《碼頭罷⼯⼀周年：鎂光燈後,還剩甚麼》), and this article provides information missing from existing English accounts of both strikes.1 Other pieces on logistics struggles are in the works. The original Chinese is pasted below the translation for archival purposes.2
Not long ago (9 September 2013), 800 tower and gantry crane operators at Yantian Port in Shenzhen launched a strike to demand wage increase. In just two days, they managed to obtain an increase of 1,700 RMB (30%). Many commentators compared this victorious result with the defeat of the 40 day strike at Hong Kong’s Kwai Tsing port, which obtained only a 9.8% wage increase, a far cry from the initial request of 23% (popularly conceived as “Yantian Victorious, Hong Kong ineffectual”). Like Yantian, Kwai Tsing port is operated by Hongkong International Terminals (HIT), a subsidiary of tycoon Li Ka-Shing’s Hutchinson Whampoa Limited (HWL). Commentators lauded the higher quality of resistance conducted by mainland workers, or urged the introspection of their Hong Kong counterparts. The comparison is charged with symbolism. Given the politically sensitive atmosphere, this naturally attracts attention; various imaginative and grandiose readings are easy to make. But from the perspective of labour struggles, the differences between the two strikes are more interesting and worthwhile for the world of labour to mull over.
However, it is important to note the basic difference between the two port strikes: the Hong Kong port strike had at most 400-450 subcontracted workers participating (whom HIT considers “non-core positions”), which (likely) meant that they were much more replaceable; the Yantian port strike that happened six months later consisted of 800 direct employees, most of which had been employed for more than ten years and formed the bulk of Shenzhen Yantian Port Group’s main labour force. As the strikers were of different statuses, a more sophisticated comparison is required.
In summary, the two port strikes have big differences. They can be broken down as follows:
Firstly, Yantian port workers began rallying among themselves, within 24 hours, news spread quickly within and brought 800 workers to strike, bringing all container shipping operations to a stop. Their opening pay raise demand of 3,000 RMB (a whopping increase of 60%) was earth-shattering; the scale and impact of their collective action was far greater than the Kwai Tsing strike that began on March 28 with 200 unionised subcontracted workers (some sources say 150) which expanded to about 300 the following day. In comparison, the Yantian strike’s spontaneity and numbers delivered a heavier punch, and was difficult to defend and prevent (from the point of view of the capitalists). This is characteristic of labour actions in mainland China.
The crux: the Kwai Tsing strike did not manage to paralyse port operations. Workers managed only to stop work at berth 6 and later, after April 1, retreated to the road outside the gate. Throughout the strike, their numbers hovered between 300 and 450. This is a result of the shortcomings with the reformism of mainstream unions in Hong Kong: the unions do not attempt to involve broader participation from workers to build a mass movement. Instead, they are fragmented with competing interests (port workers separately belong to 3 major unions).
Secondly, as a result of long-term differences in class pressures and socio-political conditions in the two regions, the different attitudes of the ruling classes in Shenzhen and Hong Kong produced very different responses.
At Kwai Tsing Container Terminals, under the dominion of Li, the management was uncompromising and ignored the worker protests for over ten days. The SAR Government Labour Department was also clearly partisan towards the port management. As the protest became drawn out, pressure from media and public opinion forced the government to broker talks.
The dominance and arrogance of the capitalist class and the SAR government originates from Hong Kong’s role as bridgehead for the revitalisation of capitalism in mainland China for the past two to three decades. This provided huge capital boosts, as well as a massive supply of low-wage labour approved by
the authoritarian Chinese state that repressed wage demands from Hong Kong workers. At the same time, large labour-intensive industries migrated overseas; workers from logistics, transportation, construction and service industries were brought under the discipline of outsourcing and became fragmented. The labour movement languished for many years.
The Hong Kong capitalist class which Li Ka-Shing represents is similarly domineering at Yantian. However, Yantian is not entirely under the sole control of Li – it is co-managed by HWL and the state bureaucracy. The former has a share ownership of 65% and assumes primary control. The mainland side of the partnership have complained(?): when Yantian port workers were on strike in April 2007, HWL was passive in response, forcing mainland parties (comprising of state and semi-official organisations such as unions) to intervene. After 2007, the mainland state partners consequently obtained concrete authority to mediate capital-labour relations. The politics of“social construction”led by Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang in 2011 brought“collective negotiation”to the fore once again and the Yantian strike in 2007 became cited as a pioneer case of capital-labour relations under“social reconstruction”. Clearly then, the Chinese state has been more proactive than the Hong Kong capitalists in dealing with labour protests. The strike this time ended in compromise in just two days, even shorter than the previous one (three days).
Despite Li’s control over both ports, why was the response in Hong Kong hardline while Yantian port was left to Chinese state partners who gave away larger concessions to workers? Yantian is an important international port (its cargo tonnage is highest in China) and a strike there damages the international political image of the government. What’s more, under the strain of China’s pressure cooker environment that is on the verge of explosion, a strike at a pivotal location could be contagious with unpredictable consequences. It may incite other workers along the coastline to action, producing a chain reaction that threatens to escalate into a widespread coastal labour movement. In actual fact, between March and June 2007, a series of strikes broke out in Yantian, Shekou, Chiwan and many ports, causing nervousness within the upper layer of the Chinese ruling class. This appears to have been the prelude for the national wave of labour unrest that began in the Pearl River Delta area in 2010. The handling of the Yantian port strike of April 2007 was in reality a special exercise in “stability maintenance” for the party leadership in Shenzhen. The Municipal Committee Secretary and the Mayor each made their statements while the Deputy Mayor met with worker representatives face to face. All these had nothing to do with the power of collective bargaining by unions, nor to do with the superiority of Chinese socialism. Li Ka-Shing and his ilk know that a favourable investment environment in China is dependent on the stability maintained by the authoritarian government. These imperious capitalists are picking up on the fact that they could ill afford to be as callous as they have long been towards the Hong Kong working public when dealing with the industrial working class in the mainland that are launching strikes fiercer by the day.
Thirdly, although Hong Kong workers enjoy basic freedoms and rights to a degree, labour struggle in Hong Kong has long been in the doldrums. There, bourgeois institutions have layered obstacles to the exercising of striking and union rights by workers. Examples include court injunctions, stricter legal procedures, unions that are divided, and a developed system of replacing striking workers with scabs. These were some of the actual means employed to counter and dissolve the Hong Kong port strike this year.
Although mainland workers lack the protection provided by basic freedoms and rights, they are not faced with the same obstacles. There are no existing anti-strike laws and judgements. Neither are there unions and reformist organisations that infiltrate deep into the labour struggle and divide the working class. Due to the massive supply of cheap labour and high-turnover employment practices, businesses rarely use scabs to break strikes as they typically end after a few days. Typically, they would either dole out crumbs to break a strike, or give large concessions that rapidly end one.
What are the implications of the aforementioned differences? What are the problems faced by Yantian and Kwai Tsing port workers? How could their respective strengths complement each other? I have a few preliminary thoughts below.
First, the success of the 800 permanent dockers at Yantian compared to their Hong Kong counterparts is not a cause for foolish self-congratulations. We need to be sober and level-headed: there are 2,500 subcontracted workers apart from these permanent workers. So far, the struggle for equal-work-equal-pay at Yantian has yet to begin. Yet, the provision of higher wages and benefits to senior workers has historically been the strategy to maintain exploitative conditions, and to divide and contain worker revolts. From this angle, despite with a participation count of four to five hundred at the Hong Kong strike, its call for wage increase focused on equal treatment of outsourced workers reflects a more sensitive and profound working class demand. This was why it resonated and gathered passionate support from rank-and-file workers of other industries (particularly construction, housekeeping and other service businesses).
Today, besides Shenzhen and Hong Kong, places all over the country are seeing the majority of workers engaged in port work and increasingly other professions being employed under subcontractors. Given this, the demand for equal pay for equal work has significant potential to gather broader participation in collective struggle. Port workers employed by HIT number 3500, 2000+ of which are subcontracted (more than half). At the Shenzhen Yantian port, in contrast, workers total 3300, three quarters of which are subcontracted (about 2500) from over 20 companies. The strikes of April 2007 and September 2013 were both initiated by the comparatively fewer and better paid permanent workers. Due to the uneven playing field, subcontracted workers face greater difficulties in starting a strike. If the problem with the 40 day port strike in Hong Kong lies in the lower mobilisation figure of 400 subcontracted workers, not even 1/7 of the total worker population there, then, despite Yantian’s count of 800 strike participants, they were all (senior) permanent workers with better protection and comprised only a quarter of the total number of workers.
The Hong Kong port strike was conducted by a group of lower status workers in the same profession demanding equal and better pay, following the great tide in mainland China in recent years where the dual demands of wage increase and equality are increasingly being made (especially by dispatched labour, which include rural power workers). Truth be told, this contains broader and more enlightening significance than the single-minded demand for wage increase by regular employees. Sooner or later, the subcontracted workers at Yantian port (whose numbers triple that of regular employers) must make their move and continue down the path their Hong Kong counterparts has opened up – demanding pay increase and pay equality for equal work, a complete end to the system of subcontracting, and rights to self organisation and collective bargaining – so as to secure the future.
Further, the weakness of Hong Kong labour lies in its high degree of fragmentation induced by the capitalist system as well as its vulnerability to cheap labour used by mainland capitalists to suppress resistance. Although the movement in spring enjoyed mass support, the prolonged trough of activity has kept Hong Kong labour weak.
In view of the highly integrated capitalist economies of Mainland China and Hong Kong, Hong Kong labour movements must play a supportive role to their mainland counterparts. The two must unite as one for the sake of a bright future. To give a tiny example: many big brands from Hong Kong have retained only their headquarters and retail bases in the city; they operate super sweatshop plants unrestrainedly in the Pearl River Delta where workers labour under rampant exploitation. Nearly a decade ago, when cadmium poisoned female workers at Gold Peak Group’s subsidiary battery plants in Huizhou crossed the border to seek support from labour organisations in Hong Kong, cross-border alliances were a rare thing. Today, there is greater collaboration between the Hong Kong labour community and workers and organisations in the mainland. This has facilitated the struggle for labour rights.
However, the port strikes have revealed the strength of Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms (i.e. it enabled workers and supporters to maintain a 40 day long struggle that provided room for effective organising), exactly where struggles by mainland workers fall short (i.e. easily repressed and killed off; struggles against exploitation often end in just a few days, and often without any result). So far, leftist comrades seem unwilling to admit or have difficulty comprehending that this is a major shortcoming of mainland workers. Due to the comparatively fewer number of direct actions, the instrumentality of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and Taiwan is rarely highlighted. Furthermore, reformist unions fashioned after the West regularly compromise and sell workers out. Despite the determination of many workers to continue the fight and possibly roping in more people, the union leadership adopted a “know when to stop” attitude and hurriedly ended the strike in early May, betraying its worker-centric roots and flushed the efforts of many down the drain. However the fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and Taiwan (especially the former) are deformed, heavily circumscribed and excised. The resort to strikes has little to do with the existence of fundamental freedoms or difficulty of struggle, and more to do with drive and momentum (for example, rapid growth in corporate profits that have not brought higher wages, and galvanisation by raises elsewhere in the same profession and industry). The protection of these basic rights are also won by worker struggles and beneficial to further struggles.
Of the fundamental freedoms, the right to strike, freedom of association, and media publishing are most important to workers. As workers in mainland China do not yet enjoy these rights, labour groups in Hong Kong and Taiwan that do to a considerable degree could link up more extensively with mainland workers to broadcast their voices, establish platforms, organise, and spur new ideas. For example, the subcontracted workers at Yantian may have greater grievances that we (in the mainland) cannot hear them as their voices are buried by big dailies full of praise for the regular Yantian port workers. Members of the Hong Kong-based Facebook group “Port Grievances”could perhaps visit Yantian to interview and link up with port workers there and work towards an “all on the same ocean” alliance between the two areas.
Finally, those passionately involved in labour organising and genuine leftists should be especially wary of the pseudo-leftist discourse of ‘maintaining stability’ of the state bureaucracy (e.g. published by the major dailies) and the political duplicity of web brigades (trolls and their ilk) that lauds the superiority of mainland workers in order to denigrate Hong Kong and Taiwan labour and divide everyone. For this reason, there needs to be greater emphasis on the cooperation between workers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China to resist big capital (the state bourgeoisie have long colluded with private capitalists from both sides of the border). We should not leave the divisiveness between workers from the two sides to fester or indulge in one-upsmanship and allow ourselves to forget the common enemy riding on our backs.
9 September 2013
- For more information in English on the Hong Kong port strike of 2013, see “Interview with leader of Hong Kong dockers” by Stephen Philion. A report based on interviews with other participants is forthcoming.
- Footnotes omitted from the translation.