Bar benders vow to continue pay fight
Damon Pang, The Standard, Hong Kong
Monday, August 20, 2007
More than 1,200 construction workers – on the 12th day of a strike for more pay and shorter working hours – staged a noisy but orderly protest in Central yesterday, and vowed to continue their stoppage until their demands are met.
The workers, joined by other labor groups and university students, marched from Chater Garden to SAR government headquarters, but there was no repeat of the rowdy scenes that marred a demonstration by hundreds of workers on August 11. On that occasion protesters blockaded a section of Queen’s Road Central for more than two hours after the secretary for labor and welfare refused to see them. Lawmaker and Confederation of Trade Unions general secretary Lee Cheuk-yan, who helped the march, said 1,500 workers, including welders, bar benders and painters, took part in yesterday’s demonstration.
“We strongly warn the government and the Hong Kong Contractors Association not to play with fire anymore and return to the negotiating table to resolve the dispute as soon as possible. Prolonging this will not benefit anyone,” Lee said to cheers from the protesters.
He also urged Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin- chung to be more proactive in mediation efforts, warning the entire construction industry will suffer if the crisis continues. Lee said the strikers will continue their campaign at a construction site on Tin Kwong Road, Ho Man Tin, this morning.
Neighbourhood Workers Service Centre lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung is organizing another march by the workers tomorrow, expected to be attended by more than 100 union representatives.
The government yesterday expressed grave concern over the latest developments. “We hope the bar benders and their employers would show mutual understanding toward each other to narrow their differences. We also hope the bar benders will resume work as early as possible,” a Labour and Welfare Bureau spokesman said. He said Cheung and the Labour Department have been trying their best to communicate with both the employees and employers and mediate in the dispute.
Demonstrators began their march from Chater Garden at 11.15am yesterday. Police sealed off two lanes along the protest route as the workers, wearing red headbands and yelling slogans like “No metal workers, no prosperity” and “Fight to the end,” headed for the SAR government headquarters.
Leading the march were several bar benders who took with them a metal rod, as 10 CTU marshalls and scores of police officers formed human chains around them to ensure order. Led by Lee, the workers chanted: “We can carry a metal bar, but not the load of our family [on our shoulders]!
“Bar benders are heroes!”
The strikers are demanding a uniform daily wage of HK$950 – up from their current pay of between HK$500 and HK$800 – and their working hours cut from nine to eight hours. The workers had rejected an offer from the Hong Kong Bar-Bending Contractors’ Association of an immediate pay rise to HK$850 a day from August 1, and HK$950 from August next year. Negotiations have since broken down.
Demonstrators sang songs and cheered after reaching government headquarters, as representatives of various groups spoke through amplifiers. “You’re all writing a glorious page in the history books of the labor sector,” Leung told the protesters.
Social Workers’ General Union president Peter Cheung Kwok-che, referring to his group’s ongoing fight for more welfare funding from the government, said: “We support your strike because we’re on the same warfront as you.” Other groups that joined the protest included the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union and the Hong Kong Women Coalition of Equal Opportunity. About a dozen representatives from the feminist group, some of their husbands bar benders, gave the strikers red roses for their courage and unity.
Eleven-year-old Tang Lun-wai, who marched in support of his father – a bar bender – said employers should stop coercing the workers and offer them higher pay. The elder Tang said he felt saddened as he may not be able to support his child for tertiary education. “But I’ll continue to strike until the very end until our demands are met,” he said.
Ghale Satya Prasad, a Nepalese construction group representative who had worked at construction sites in Hong Kong for 11 years, called for equal pay for all workers, saying the HK$450 daily pay was discriminatory, adding that the strike was important to the local Nepalese community as more than half of some 20,000 Nepalese in Hong Kong are construction workers.