Dockers at HK Port Operated by Billionaire Agree to 9.8 Pct Pay Rise

By MarEx 2013-05-07 08:09:00

About 500 striking workers at a Hong Kong port operated by billionaire Li Ka-shing agreed to a 9.8 percent pay rise on Monday, ending one of the city's longest-running industrial disputes.

The workers, on strike for more than a month, agreed to the wage increase after contractors for Li's port operator, Hongkong International Terminals (HIT), issued the terms of the deal in writing, as requested by the dockers.

"This is beneficial for all parties involved: the workers can return to their posts and the company can focus on restoring the port to its full operational capabilities," HIT said in a statement.

In capitalist Hong Kong, the world's third-largest container port, where billionaire tycoons tend to be admired as symbols of success, the strike represented one of the most high-profile public challenges to Li, whose businesses dominate an array of sectors.

Li had been criticised for failing to help resolve the strike after HIT said it should be worked out by contractors who supply labourers to the berths it operates.

The workers took their protest from the port to Li's headquarters in the heart of the Asian financial centre three weeks ago, setting up camp and waving pictures of the tycoon defaced with devil's horns.

Protest banners of Li as a devil, on his own doorstep, were humiliating for the city's richest man and illustrated growing frustration over Hong Kong's widening wealth gap.

"Li Ka-shing suffered a lot in terms of public image, both himself and his enterprise," said political scientist Ma Ngok, who said Li had used "ugly" tactics to attack the strikers, including taking out expensive newspaper advertisements and seeking a legal injunction to prevent workers from protesting.

"He was out of touch with the public sentiment. The public had unprecedented support for the workers, with HK$8 million received in donations," added Ma.

In one advertisement, HIT blamed the strikers for having "ignited anti-tycoon sentiment, fanned hearsay and rumours with a view of demeaning and ridiculing Mr. Li Ka-shing".

Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying -- whom Li publicly opposed in last year's leadership election - failed to broker a swifter resolution to minimize the economic impact on Hong Kong, whose recent minimum wage increase and soaring rental costs have already eroded the city's business competitiveness.

Leung, however, defended his government's handling of the dispute, saying its efforts should be acknowledged.

"The difficulties were extremely great," said Leung.

The workers had initially demanded a rise of about 20 percent and improved working conditions, such as more toilet facilities, which have also been granted.

Some industry groups said the strike, while disruptive, would likely not have a longer-term impact on Hong Kong, which serves as the gateway to mainland China's manufacturing heartland and is the world's third-largest container port after Shanghai and Singapore. ($1 = 7.7590 Hong Kong dollars)

--Reporting By Grace Li and Twinnie Siu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Ron Popeski (C) Reuters 2013.