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Dockers' strike cuts port cargo 'in half'

Vessels are skipping Hong Kong altogether or dropping part of their load elsewhere before arriving at the terminal, industry insiders say

The volume of cargo handled by port operator Hongkong International Terminals (HIT) has halved in the 12 days since dockers walked off the job, as more vessels turn to other ports, insiders say.

This came as HIT appeared to have softened its stance on its dispute with the workers at Kwai Tsing. It had earlier refused to meet the dockers, saying they were employed by the contractors and not HIT.

A spokeswoman said last night that although HIT does not have a direct relationship with the workers hired by contractors, it was "open to sitting in at meetings which may be arranged by the Labour Department between the contractors and the workers".

A shipping industry insider who declined to be named said the amount of cargo HIT handled in its five terminals had dropped 40 to 50 per cent because many vessels called on other ports such as those in Shenzhen instead.

And the vessels that came were dropping part of their cargo in other ports before calling on Hong Kong so that unloading at HIT's terminals would be faster, he said.

Another insider, Dr Paul Tsui Hon-yan, chairman of the Association of Freight Forwarding and Logistics, said HIT's operating capacity was down 20 to 30 per cent compared with the pre-strike period. "HIT can normally handle 28 to 30 containers an hour. But now, it can handle only 21 an hour," he said. He also noted that there were usually 44 cranes working at the HIT terminals but after the strike began the operator had only enough workers to operate 34 cranes.

Tsui's association gathered figures from shipping companies and found that about 120,000 containers were now stuck at the port. The delay in handling imported goods is between one and 10 days, and between two and six days for exported goods.

Shippers' Council executive director Sunny Ho Lap-kee feared that if the strike persisted, some vessels would never return to Hong Kong.

In his first comment on the strike, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the government would do its best to get all the parties involved to meet.

Separately, president Wong Kwai-ting of the HIT Group Employees General Union, which represents 300 dockers directly employed by HIT, said he met the company's officials yesterday about the union's demand for overtime pay of 1.5 times the current wages.

He said HIT offered three options, including a rate of only 1.2 times. The other option was a progressive rate based on the dockers' rank but most dockers would get only 1.1 times wages in overtime pay. The last option was a day off for every 32 hours of overtime worked.

Wong said that although this was "humiliating", he would talk to the dockers before deciding on the next step.