Workers Struggles: Asia, Australia and the Pacific

23 April 2005

Asia

Chinese workers strike over pay and working conditions

On April 18, workers at the Japanese-owned Uniden factory in Shenzhen went on strike over poor pay and working conditions. They protested against the abusive attitude of the management toward employees, including the distribution of a notice to workers from the chairman of the company’s board of directors that contained insults.

Uniden manufactures mobile phones for Walmart and employs mainly women workers, most of whom come from deprived rural areas of China. The workers are paid a monthly wage of just $US58. While they are required to work 12 hours a day they are only paid for 10.5 hours and do not get overtime penalty rates. Working conditions at the plant are reported to be extremely bad.

China’s official media is not reporting the strike but workers are using a range of methods to broadcast news of the dispute, including sending SMS text messages. Uniden workers struck about six months ago over the same issues.

Filipino transport workers protest over fuel prices

A one-day nationwide strike by transport workers on April 18 brought public transport in most cities across the Philippines to a standstill. In the capital Manila, thousands of commuters were stranded as over 90 percent of transport workers joined the strike and attended protest rallies at various locations around the city.

The strike was called by Piston, the country’s largest transport union with a membership of 250,000 drivers and mini-bus operators. Piston is demanding an immediate end to fuel price increases and for the government to repeal the oil deregulation law that allows oil firms to dictate pump prices.

Since September 2003, fuel prices have risen at least 15 times. In the past, drivers and transport operators have sought fare increases but these have not compensated for the higher fuel costs. The government has reneged on a promise, made to end a national strike in November 2004, to discount prices at the fuel pump.

Hong Kong restaurant workers demand severance pay

Chanting slogans, 80 restaurant workers employed by the bankrupt Ocean Palace Restaurant and Nightclub in Hong Kong marched to the Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant on April 14 after managers refused to provide severance packages to 230 staff. The action took place after a meeting between the off-duty workers, union officials and the management failed to produce a solution.

Management informed the workers that the 29-year-old restaurant would close down on April 24 and that all outstanding salaries would be paid three days later. To obtain severance, however, workers were told they would have to apply to the government-run insolvency fund.

A leading company executive told workers “there is not enough money left for severance pay” but claimed that the company had done what it “was supposed to do” in relation to its employees. He said management had “a clear conscience”. It is estimated that $HK8.5 billion will be owed in severance pay when the restaurant closes.

Workers claim that some shareholders are planning to open another restaurant but are looking to rehire only a few management-level employees from Ocean Palace.

Teachers force Pakistani university to reinstate professor

Teachers at the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science & Technology of Karachi in Pakistan protested over three days from April 13 against the suspension of associate professor Syed Asghar Ali. The campaign, which included a sit-down protest on University Road, resulted in the university administration closing the campus and postponing examinations.

The university claims that Syed was suspended for “using harsh or improper language in his letter to varsity’s senate members” but teachers allege that it was the result of outside political pressure. They demanded his immediate reinstatement. Students and non-teaching staff in other high education institutes supported the campaign, which ended on April 15 when the university withdrew the suspension order.

Sri Lankan supermarket workers demand government buyback

Thousands of workers at Sri Lanka’s Cooperative Wholesale Establishment (CWE)—popularly known as the “Sathosa” supermarket chain—began a nationwide strike from April 20. They are demanding the government honour an election promise to buy back Sathosa’s 144 retail outlets and secure the jobs of 3,100 workers employed in them. Striking workers picketed in several cities, including Kalutara, Galle and Kandy.

CWE’s retail outlets were sold to private operator International Grocery Alliance (IGA) by the previous United National Front government at the end of 2003. One of the main election pledges of the present United Peoples Freedom Alliance government was to buy back the outlets.

Even though IGA promised to increase the outlets by 300 when it purchased the CWE chain, it is now attempting to close stores and slash the workforce. A spokesman for the workers said: “We firmly believe that the government must accept responsibility for this situation.”

Sri Lankan surveyors strike over conditions

Surveyors working for the state-owned Sri Lanka Surveying Service began a strike on April 18, demanding the implementation of an amended constitution governing the recruitment of new staff.

The changes were drawn up in 1992 to improve the process through which surveying university graduates are hired and integrated into the service. The issue has remained unresolved since. The surveyors pledged to continue to strike until their demand is met.

The same day, volunteer teachers who have mainly been working in rural areas of the country picketed in front of the Ministry of Education in Colombo to demand permanent teaching appointments.

Australia and the Pacific

Australian bank staff stop work over company offer

Westpac staff attended stop-work meetings in South Australia and Tasmania on April 26 to discuss the management’s refusal to improve its offer in the negotiations toward a new work agreement. The stoppages follow a similar action in Victoria last week.

According to a union spokesman, the employers’ current offer would see workers’ conditions “go backwards in key areas”. Union demands include pay increases, staff recruitment to provide for “appropriate relief”, a fair public holiday rostering system and “fair and achievable” work targets. It is also demanding “genuine voluntarism” if staff are called in to work on Saturday and Sunday.

Maintenance strike over job security

About 30 maintenance and construction workers employed by labour hire company Skilled Engineering in New South Wales went on strike for 48 hours on April 19. They were working on potlines at Hydro Aluminium in the regional town of Kurri Kurri.

The strike was in protest against the use of subcontractors by Skilled that workers claim threatens in-house positions. The company sacked nine casual employers on April 8, claiming a shortage of work. The company took the dispute to the Industrial Relations Commission in Sydney on April 21.

Miners end strike in Western Australia

The 160 striking coal miners on strike at Westfarmers Premier Coal in the southern Western Australian town of Collie returned to work at the end of last week after being on strike for 10 days.

While the union claimed the strike was over safety, the company insisted it was in support of 62 tradesmen at the mine who have been on strike for over seven weeks over failed enterprise bargaining negotiations. The miners walked out after the company used contract tradesmen to do the work of the striking maintenance workers.

Port workers strike over unloader purchase

Around 70 members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) at the Kwinana bulk terminal port south of Perth in Western Australia downed tools this week over the import by the Fremantle Port Authority of a Polish-built $10 million container unloader. The workers employed by Pacific Industrial Contractors, Thiess and Total Corrosion Control set up a picket line to prevent the unloader’s installation. They called on truck drivers and Maritime Workers Union members not to cross the picket. The dispute could escalate.

The objective of the AMWU campaign is the nationalist demand that the port authority give more work to local Western Australian companies.

New Zealand workers strike in wages campaign

Up to 2,000 workers from hundreds of firms covered by the Metals and Manufacturing Industries Collective Agreement went on strike on April 15 to protest the “final” 4 percent pay offer by the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA). The workers are seeking a 5 percent increase as part of the campaign organised by the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) for an across-the-board national increase.

The EMA this week responded by refusing to continue negotiations and described the strike as the “beginning of the end” for the multi-employer agreement. The EPMU immediately moved to negotiate with 33 of the 200 employers covered by the collective agreement and has offered to reduce the 5 percent claim if individual employers prove they cannot “afford” it.

Despite efforts by the EPMU to limit the wages campaign, it escalated this week with hundreds of workers in other industries pushing for wage increases as well. Some 238 coal miners walked off the job at the Huntly and Rotowaro mines after Solid Energy refused to grant a 6 percent increase. The miners maintained bans this week on coal destined for the Huntly power station. Coal miners at Solid Energy’s Spring Creek mine in the South Island struck for 24 hours.

More than 400 Waikato District Health Board clerical and administration workers also went on strike, and 88 workers at engineering company A and G Priceheld in Thames struck for 24 hours. Printers at City Print in Wellington picketed the company’s central city plant. Industrial action by maintenance workers at Firestone tyres Christchurch has entered its second week. Staff in the Legal Services Agency (LSA), responsible for processing legal aid claims, walked off the job for 4 hours on April 19 and picketed the Christchurch District Court and the LSA office in Wellington.

Meanwhile, ANZ and National bank workers are to vote on a resolution for strike action, after negotiations this week failed to produce an agreement over penalty pay rates. The shearers’ union has announced it will be seeking a multi-employer collective agreement and in Tokoroa, Carter Holt Harvey’s 270 Kinleith sawmill workers are to begin negotiations for a pay rise.

Fiji Telecom workers reject severance offer

Workers at Telecom Fiji rejected voluntary redundancy packages offered to them on April 15 as part of the company’s restructure plan in preparation for privatisation. Telecom offered voluntary redundancy to all its 1,500 employees and was hoping that at least 500 would accept. The offer includes a fixed sum of three months pay plus two weeks pay for each year of service.

The Fiji Posts and Telecommunications Union has no plan to defend the 500 jobs and is seeking a severance package that offers a fixed sum of two years pay, no outsourcing of Telecom operations and no “forced” redundancies.