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On The Road to Hong Kong & China

Reliving old memories while tracking a rising labor activism

Yours truly overlooking Hong Kong in 1972

My Army buddy Bob Vanover sadly admired the Hong Kong skyline our final day there back in April 1972 and sighed, “Take
a last look, Joe. We’ll never see this place again.”

Always the optimist, I shook my head and proclaimed: “You never know, Bob. We could be back someday.”

We were both soldiers based in Plantation, Vietnam, on a week-long R&R (Rest & Recreation) in Hong Kong, taking a needed break from Hueys, dusty villages, water buffalo, lambrettas and the occasional pajama-wearing Viet Cong. We were in one of free Asia’s biggest cities, a teeming anthill of skyscrapers and crowded markets, back alleys and waterfronts, rickshaws and Chinese junks. Hong Kong was Asian but to us it was also “The World,” which then meant any place other than Vietnam.

Yours truly, out of uniform and Bob Vanover in Vietnam
Yours truly, out of uniform and Bob Vanover in Vietnam

Hey, Bob, wherever you are, you were wrong and I was right.

Yep, Bob, I’m going back to Hong Kong next week, and I’ll spend much of the next three weeks there and on the mainland in Beijing, Xian, and possibly Shanghai. I doubt the Suzie Wong Bar is still in Hong Kong, but surely Thieves’ Market –– also known as Cat Street –– is still clogged with humanity, including a few of the kind who gave it its name.

This will likely be my last posting on Labor South until my return in mid-June. The trip will be part play, part work. The working end will take place in Hong Kong, where I’m hoping to talk to folks about the recent successful dockworkers’ strike there and about the migrant worker issue, a long-term project of mine.

A crowded street, possibly Cat Street, in Hong Kong in 1972
A crowded street, possibly Cat Street, in Hong Kong in 1972

Some 450 Hong Kong International Terminals (HIT) dockworkers struck for 40 days between March 28 and early May to demand better wages and working conditions. The strike at the world’s third-busiest port pitted the members of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) against billionaire Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man. Li Ka-shing controls the HIT and 70 percent of all port traffic in Hong Kong.

The strikers won and went back to work after securing a 9.8 percent boost in wages. They received local and global support for their cause with many Hong Kong citizens as well as activists from the mainland contributing to their strike fund.

“Our union works from below, persuading worker by worker to join and get organized, with the effect of enabling rank-and-file workers to make their voices heard,” Dockworkers Union Secretary Wong Yu Loy told labor scholar and writer Stephen Philion in a recent interview (http://www.labornotes.org/2013/05/hong-kong-dockers-claim-victory).

Wong Yu Loy told Philion –– whom I hope to see while I’m in Hong Kong –– that dockworkers occupy a unique and crucial link in the global economy, serving as a “vital cog in the corporate supply chain.” This was seen in the historic labor action by dockworkers in Charleston, S.C., back in 2000 when they successfully forced back a union-busting effort by a Danish shipping line. They got international support and won the day, just as their counterparts in Hong Kong have now done.

It’s another promising sign –– in this eternal optimist’s viewpoint –– of a rising worker consciousness around the globe. Tracking that is one big reason for this trip to Hong Kong.

Look at Bangladesh, where the garment industry moved to take advantage of the least-paid and most vulnerable workers of the world. Six months after 112 workers died in a fire at the Tazreen factory near Dhaka, another 1,127 were killed when the building housing the Rana Plaza clothing factory, also near Dhaka, collapsed. Another 2,000 workers face lifelong physical injuries and impairment as a result.

But these tragedies may bring about change. The underpaid, vulnerable workers in Bangladesh are standing up for their rights and making demands. The Bangladesh government recently agreed to raise the minimum wage and allow workers to form trade unions without factory owners’ prior approval.

Still, some 20,000 workers continued their protests in the Bangladesh garment center of Ashulia this week and faced police forces firing rubber bullets at them. Dozens were injured.

European retailers have responded to the tragedies by agreeing to a plan to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. U.S. retailers like Walmart are balking, however, citing concerns about the legal implications. Protesters plan to be in Bentonville, Ark., at Walmart’s shareholders’ meeting on June 7 to bring home the message that even giant U.S. corporations have to recognize the basic rights and dignity of workers, no matter where they are. At the protest will be Bangladesh workers.

–  Joe Atkinsis a veteran journalist and columnist who teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi. He can be reached at jbatkins@olemiss.edu

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