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'The evil thing about outsourcing'

The dockworkers on strike are employed by HIT subcontractors Global Stevedoring Service and Everbest Port Service. They say they are doing the same job as HIT employees, but receive less pay and have harsher working hours. Their working conditions have raised concerns about workers being exploited by the subcontracting system. HIT, meanwhile, has pointed out that it has received few complaints from its own workers.

Stephen Cheng, president of the Hong Kong Logistics Association, does not think it is the process of subcontracting itself that has harmed the industry, but the way subcontracting is managed. "There is no good or bad with subcontracting. It is used in many industries. The logistics industry benefits by having more efficient operations, since subcontractors are able to focus on their assigned duties. The problems lie in the subcontractor management system, and that system is definitely worth reviewing," he says.

Professor Leung Tin-wai, head of the journalism and communication department at Hong Kong Shue Yan University (HKSYU), sees the subcontracting system as providing the perfect formula to exploit workers. "[HIT] bosses love the system. They get the service they want and have no responsibilities. It is obvious that the workers serve Hutchison Whampoa [HIT's parent company], but when they have demands, they are being referred to the subcontractors instead," he says.

The "lowest price wins" mechanism of the outsourcing system is the reason workers have to endure such harsh work conditions and low pay, he adds.

"The bidder with the lowest price wins the contract," Leung says. "Subcontractors will do everything possible to reduce the pay of workers in order to win the bid. The workers are the ones who suffer while their bosses are able to make huge profits. That is how the business works. It is so sad to see people suffering like that in an international city like Hong Kong."

Talks between subcontractors and the labour union have achieved little so far. The commitment of employer representatives to resolving the situation have also been in question following reports of them walking out of meetings to have lunch.

Leung thinks that from a public-relations (PR) point of view, Hutchison Whampoa has handled the strike very poorly. Hutchison Whampoa group managing director Canning Fok Kin-ning and HIT managing director Gerry Yim Lui-fai have further angered workers and their supporters with claims that the harshness of working conditions was exaggerated. They have been insisting that workers are being paid reasonably. Leung believes that the way the two men have behaved has created a PR disaster.

"The facial expressions, words and intonations of Fok Kin-ning and Yim Lui-fai when appearing in front of the media has given the public a very bad impression," Leung says.

"Their words and actions have jeopardised their brand name. I think these two men are not helping [Hutchison Whampoa chairman] Li Ka-shing make money in this case. It is really bad PR," he adds.

Leung is pessimistic about workers winning the battle against the deep-pocketed business tycoons, despite gaining support from the public. "At the end of the day, people need to make a living. They have families to feed and this cannot go on forever. It is very sad to see them having to work under such horrible conditions, but eventually one needs to accept reality," he says.

Striking workers surrounding Cheung Kong Centre in an attempt to urge Hutchison Whampoa to respond will have little effect, Leung says. "Although it is obvious that the workers serve Hutchison Whampoa and the company should be held responsible, Hutchison Whampoa is not breaking any law by not responding. This is the evil thing about outsourcing," he says.