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LCQ13: Container terminal labour dispute

     Following is a question by the Hon Ronny Tong and a written reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, in the Legislative Council today (May 8):


     The 2013-2014 Budget has mentioned that the Government is conducting a study on the proposal of constructing Container Terminal 10 in Tsing Yi to examine the technical feasibility and assess the environmental impact of the proposal. It has been reported that the Government will upgrade the shipping industry of Hong Kong and develop Hong Kong into an international shipping service centre which is comparable to that in London.  However, the labour dispute at the Hongkong International Terminals (the dispute), which has lasted for weeks, has revealed the existing operational problems at the terminals, including workers having to work 24-hour shifts non-stop over a long period of time, as well as the problems regarding the working conditions for workers (including mealtime and toilet break arrangements, etc) and operation. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) given that during the past few rounds of negotiations between the employers and employees, some representatives of the employers left the negotiation meetings halfway on various grounds (eg the need to have meals and take medication), causing the meetings to end halfway, whether it has assessed if this situation indicates that the authorities have not actively undertaken the mediation work; if the assessment result is in the affirmative, of the reasons for that, including whether the Government is unable to carry out the mediation work; if the assessment result is in the negative, why the labour dispute has lasted for weeks and the authorities have still failed to urge both the employers and employees to return to the negotiation table;

(b) given that under the Labour Relations Ordinance (Cap 55), if ordinary conciliation or special conciliation fails to settle a trade dispute, the Chief Executive in Council (CE in Council) may (i) with the consent of the parties, refer the dispute to arbitration, (ii) refer the dispute to a board of inquiry, or (iii) take such other action as warranted, of the criteria based on which CE in Council decides whether to intervene in a trade dispute; if there are no such criteria, of the reasons for that;

(c) whether it has assessed, in this dispute, if the interests of the workers have not been adequately protected because legislation on the right of collective bargaining has not been enacted in Hong Kong; if it has, of the results; whether the Government will consider commencing the work on the legislation on the right of collective bargaining; if it will, of the details (including legislative timetable); if not, the reasons for that;

(d) whether the Government has assessed the losses caused by the dispute, which has lasted for weeks, to the economy of Hong Kong; why the Government has all along not made public such information; and

(e) whether it has studied which kind of operation mode should be used to run the new Container Terminal 10, so as to improve the working conditions for workers at the Terminal (e.g. avoiding the adoption of the arrangements of 24-hour non-stop shifts and three consecutive shifts, as well as improving the mealtime and toilet break arrangements for the workers); if it has not, of the reasons for that?



     My reply to the question raised by the Hon Ronny Tong Ka-wah is as follows:

(a) The Government attached great importance to the industrial action at the Hong Kong International Terminals right from the beginning. The Labour and Welfare Bureau (LWB) and the Labour Department (LD) spared no effort in shuttling among the parties concerned and fostering dialogue with a view to resolving their differences and exploring viable solutions. The diversity of issues and number of parties involved as well as the various pre-conditions for attending conciliation meetings set by the parties concerned made it difficult in arranging and conducting conciliation meetings. The sudden cessation of one of the contractors concerned also compounded the uncertainties and difficulties of the conciliation process. Despite these, with the strenuous and unceasing efforts of LWB and LD, five rounds of conciliation meetings for employers and employees were held.  At the request of the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, the contractors provided a written reassurance to LD to confirm their final pay rise package on May 6, 2013. The workers on strike announced on the same day their acceptance of the package and called off the industrial action.

(b) The Labour Relations Ordinance provides the framework for assisting employers and employees in resolving their disputes through different means, including conciliation, mediation and arbitration with the consent of the relevant parties etc. In deciding whether to adopt a certain procedure, consideration would be given to the circumstances of each case, including the wishes of employers and employees concerned, the impact of the incident on members of the public and society, which approach would be most effective in resolving the problem and so on.

     For the container terminal labour dispute, the Commissioner for Labour promptly designated experienced conciliators to conciliate in the dispute and concrete progress was made. Past experience shows that negotiation and conciliation with the voluntary participation of the parties concerned are the most effective way to resolve a labour dispute. For the present case, LWB and LD exerted great efforts in assisting the parties concerned to communicate and have direct dialogue with each other. In the course of the labour dispute, different measures were employed, resulting in the parties concerned adopting a pragmatic approach in resolving the case.  

(c) The labour legislation of Hong Kong affords employees with the basic rights and protection in various aspects. On this basis, employers and employees are free to negotiate having regard to the circumstances of their own industry and the labour market. To promote direct dialogues between employers and employees on employment-related matters, we have constantly encouraged employers and employees to conduct, on their own initiative and of their own volition, discussion on matters of mutual concern such as the terms of employment. We believe that employers and employees are long-term partners. Discussion and negotiation conducted between both parties on the basis of mutual understanding are vital to forging and sustaining amicable bilateral relationship.

     LD encourages and promotes the mechanism of voluntary negotiations between employers or employers associations and employees unions at the central, enterprise and industry levels.  At the central level, the Labour Advisory Board comprising members from the employee and employer sectors in equal numbers as well as the Government advises the Government on the formulation of labour policies and legislation. At the industry level, tripartite committees in different industries comprising representatives of workers' unions, employers and their organisations and LD have been set up to conduct discussion on issues pertaining to labour relations and employment of concern to the industries. At the enterprise level, we encourage employers to adopt good people management practices appropriate to the circumstances of individual organisations and maintain effective communication with their employees and employees' unions on employment matters.

     We are of the view that for any negotiation or bargaining process to be successful and meaningful, it has to be voluntary. Legislating on collective bargaining can only set the rules and regulations on the process of bargaining but cannot compel the reaching of a mutually acceptable agreement.  Collective bargaining between employers and employees' unions compelled by law may only strain the relationship between employers and employees and may thus be counter-productive.

(d) According to the data announced by the Port Development Council on April 15 this year, the preliminary statistics of the total throughput of Kwai Tsing Container Terminals in March 2013 was 1.42 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs), 5.9% lower than that of the same period last year. However, as the strike just started towards the end of March, its impact on the overall throughput of the Hong Kong Port was not significant. The statistics for April will be announced in mid-May.

(e) Regarding the development of Container Terminal 10 (CT10), the Administration is conducting two studies, including the preliminary feasibility study for CT10 at Southwest Tsing Yi and the Study on the Strategic Development Plan for Hong Kong Port 2030. Upon completion of the studies, the study results, the then global and local economic situation, the performance of the port sector, and the views of stakeholders will be taken into account when deciding on the need for developing CT10 and, if applicable, the timetable, scale and mode of operation involved.

Ends/Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Issued at HKT 12:51


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