HONG KONG (AP) — Striking Hong Kong dockworkers refused to back down Wednesday in a weeklong pay dispute that is slowing cargo shipments at the world's third busiest port.
Several hundred dockworkers and supporters camped out on the road in front of a container terminal. The workers are demanding a 20 percent pay raise but subcontractors supplying labor to port operators are only offering 5 percent.
Hutchison International Terminals, controlled by Asia's richest person, Li Ka-shing, operates the terminal where the workers are striking. Officials say the action is costing the company 5 million Hong Kong dollars ($644,000) a day.
The company has distanced itself from the dispute, saying that the stevedores are not Hutchison employees. It said terminal operations are continuing but truck traffic in the area where the strikers are camped has slowed down.
The workers want Hutchison to negotiate directly with their union about pay. They're also demanding resolution of some health and safety problems, such as lack of bathroom breaks.
Hong Kong is the world's third busiest port by container volume, behind the mainland Chinese cities of Shanghai and Shenzhen, according to World Shipping Council data.
"There are some disruptions, particularly for the importers," which are seeing some shipments of perishable goods like fruit rot because they're sitting on the dock longer, said Willy Lin, chairman of the Hong Kong Shippers' Council. "On the export side it's slower to get the containers out of the terminals."
Lin said he has heard that truck drivers are one to three hours late picking up and dropping off shipments because of the strike, but "so far we haven't seen major disruptions."
The Shippers' Council, which represents importers, exporters and manufacturers, has advised its members to arrange backup plans in case the strike drags on, including having shipments move through other ports in China, such as nearby Shenzhen.
Some shipping companies are already taking precautions. Japan's Mitsui OSK Lines reported several delays and diverted two ships away from Hong Kong because of the strike. The company said a Europe-bound ship would skip the city and instead stop in Vietnam, where Hong Kong cargo would be transferred to another ship to get to its final destination.
The dispute intensified after a magazine report that said a Hutchison executive, Gerry Yim, was a director of a labor subcontractor involved in the dispute. Yim told reporters that the article was "very misleading and inaccurate."
Lee Cheuk-yan, a legislator and union leader, said the dockworkers were angry about the subcontractors.
"When there are layers of companies exploiting the workers, workers get very little," Lee said at the strikers' camp, where workers have set up tents and temporary shelters.
Hong Kong is a major transfer point for goods coming in and out of mainland China. It was the world's busiest port for years, handling shipments of jeans, shoes and electronics manufactured in southern China's Pearl River Delta for export to consumers in the West. But it has been overtaken by Shanghai and Shenzhen in recent years.
Lin said Hong Kong's port still holds an edge over its rivals in mainland China because it's faster and more efficient. Hong Kong can turn around a container in 18-22 hours while Shenzhen needs 24, he said.
Lin said other regional rivals around Asia such as Singapore, Busan in South Korea and Kaohsiung in Taiwan "all want a slice of this pie" and the dispute will hurt Hong Kong's image as a dependable port if it drags on.
Hutchison operates 12 berths at four of Hong Kong's nine container terminals and two others with a joint venture partner. The company is controlled by Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., the flagship company of billionaire Li's sprawling Hong Kong business empire which also has retail, mobile phone and property businesses spanning the globe.
Striking workers like crane operator Cho Wai-kei said they earn about 700 Hong Kong dollars ($90) a shift, or about HK$17,000 ($2,200) a month. He and other workers operating the giant cranes moving containers on and off ships complained of arduous 12-hour shifts during which they weren't allowed to leave their operator cabins high above the ground, even to use the bathroom.
"When you get into that metal cage, there's no difference between you and a dog," Cho said.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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