Billionaire Li Ka-shing moved to end a four-week strike at his docks in Hong Kong, hiring new workers to handle ships and giving a noon ultimatum for protesters to leave his building in the city's Central District.
The waiting time is an average 20 to 25 hours, compared with about 60 hours when the strike started last month, Hongkong International Terminals Ltd. said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. Li's terminals are operating at as much as 90 percent of their capacity as some of the 450 workers returned to their posts, and more than 30 new stevedores were hired by contractors.
''The gradual recovery of operation is weakening the strikers' bargaining power,'' Lawrence Li, an analyst at UOB-Kay Hian Holdings Ltd. said by phone. ''It puts the workers in a very difficult situation.''
Improving conditions at the world's third-biggest container port may encourage shipping lines that skipped the city in favor of Shenzhen, China, to return, blunting the biggest industrial action against Li. Some of the dock workers, who are asking for better pay and working conditions, are staging a sit-in around Li's Cheung Kong Center building at the business district.
Some 100 vessels have skipped Hong Kong port since the start of the labor dispute, Hongkong International said in the e-mail. (Bloomberg)
The workers, who walked out off their jobs March 28, will continue to press for better pay and working conditions, and won't rule out further escalation of protest, said Wong Yu-loy, a representative of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers.
'Cheung Kong Center'
''The workers are still very determined and we will continue to think about escalating actions,'' Wong said. ''To be honest, we did expect the strike to last a long period, but I have to say that we didn't expect it could last such a long time, four weeks. But we are determined.''
The workers surrounded Li's 70-story building -- home to the offices of Barclays Plc and Goldman Sachs Inc. -- last week after rejecting a pay raise aimed at ending the strike. Dozens of striking workers are sleeping in tents surrounding the building. They have put up caricature pictures of Li while police and security guards patrol the area.
Cheung Kong Center told the workers to leave the site by noon, failing which they could be subject to criminal prosecution, according to a notice the building management put up today.
An eviction of the demonstrators at Cheung Kong may be days later. When protesters of the Occupy movement were given a deadline last year to leave the premises of HSBC Holdings Plc' Asian headquarters, court bailiffs only moved them out more than two weeks later.
Li is Asia's richest man with a total wealth of $26.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Contract workers of Li's Hongkong International were offered a 7 percent raise by their employers, compared with the workers' demand for a 23 percent increase amid rising living costs and record home prices. Government mediators have helped narrow the differences between employers and workers, Labor Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters April 17.
Some workers were told they will lose their jobs on April 19 as Global Stevedoring Service Co., one of the contractors which employs them, decided to wind up operations because it wasn't able to meet the workers' salary demand.
The striking workers are in a weak position as they account for only a small portion of the total workforce, said Paul Tsui, chairman of Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding and Logistics Ltd., which represents 345 freight forwarders in the city.
''Even though the operations are getting better, we still hope it can be resolved soon, because it hurts everybody in the city,'' Tsui said.
Hongkong International Terminals is operated by Hutchison Port Holdings Trust, whose largest shareholder is Li's Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. Hutchison Port, along with partner Cosco Pacific Ltd., dominates half of the capacity at Hong Kong, the world's third-largest container port behind Shanghai and Singapore.
The striking workers represent about 12 percent of 3,500 to 3,800 contract workers Hutchison Port hires in Hong Kong, according to its latest annual report.
The daily financial loss caused by the strike has been ''significantly'' reduced in the last two weeks, Hongkong International said in the statement on April 23, without elaboration. The daily loss was narrowed to HK$2.4 million ($309,000) on April 5 from HK$5 million earlier, according to the company.
Evergreen Marine Corp Taiwan Ltd., which had diverted vessels to Shenzhen after the delays, hopes the labor issue can be resolved soon, it said in an e-mailed statement on April 23. Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. ships have skipped 13 dockings in the city because of the strike, it said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
The striking workers, mostly crane operators and stevedores, earn HK$55 an hour, according to the union. That's less than the HK$60.70 they were paid in 1995, the union said. The workers had a pay cut in 2003 during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.