Washing Their Hands

I often think that Pontius Pilate gets a pretty unfair rap at around this time of year, as new generations of schoolchildren are taught that he was largely to blame for the crucifixion of Christ, an event we now celebrate as Easter.

Wasn't he just a governor from a far off place sent to keep order in a rebellious foreign state, backed up by an inadequate garrison? Wasn't he bound to free Barabbas instead of Jesus when the mob demanded it, literally washing his hands in the process to deny responsibility?

Even now, some 2000 years later, we still use the expression to "wash one's hands of something" in a critical way.

This whimsical thought is my back door entrance to the whole subject of the dockworkers strike at container terminals operated by the Hutchison Group company Hongkong International Terminals.

There is one fairly straightforward aspect to the dispute: the workers want a pay rise, claiming that they haven't had one for many years. That part of their demand will no doubt be settled in the usual commercial way.

But there are other aspects of the dispute which come across as rather odd. For example, only a minority of those working on the docks are direct hires of HIT itself. They are not on strike.

The majority are the employees of four different sub contractors, and these are the ones who have downed tools.

Next comes the involvement of two different trade union umbrella organisations. One is the Federation, which represents those not on strike. One is the Confederation, which represents those who are.

Our Secretary for Labour, Matthew Cheung, felt obliged to hold crisis talks with both, in separate sessions, together with some of the employers. Other contractors refused to attend, while HIT itself would only come as an observer.

In fairness, it should be admitted that Cheung's tactics may not be as crazy as they seem at first sight. If the Confederation secured improved terms for its members by striking, the Federation would no doubt instantly become more militant.

But in the middle of all this confusion there was one aspect of the dispute that for me really stood out. The working conditions of the crane operators come from another planet.

Some are required to work in a cabin high up on a tower for 12 hours non-stop. They get no meal break so they take food and drink with them for consumption while continuing to work.

Now, eating and drinking while on the job while in an office environment can be OK if circumstances allow. And there are other blue collar jobs where it is also done without creating a problem.

But if you are stuck up high in the air in a small cabin for a prolonged period, you do have one major issue: where and how do you go to toilet, and when you have finished, wash your hands.

Thanks to our friends in the local media, we now have answers to these questions and in the more sensational ones we have photographs as evidence.

In the 21st century, in Asia's World City, working men are expected to urinate out of the window directly into the Harbour far below. And if necessary they defecate on newspaper in the corner of the cabin, wrap it up, and dispose of the parcel either immediately out of the window or later.

It is astonishing that honest working men feel obliged to tolerate such conditions. It is equally astonishing that purportedly responsible employers seek to impose such conditions on their employees. Whether the direct or indirect boss, did none of them feel a twinge of conscience?

And it is absolutely outrageous that staff of the Labour Department whose job it is to secure a safe working environment have stood aside while these practices endured for decades.

Are the companies involved so powerful that no one dare stand up to them?

Fear not, help may be at hand. Our Health Secretary Ko Wing Man comes across as a no-nonsense practical action man. Given all the concern about the threats to community health, especially with H7N9 hanging over us, could his staff simply issue a directive that proper hand washing arrangements be put in place in all workplaces without further ado on pain of closure.

And if the crane operators are coming down to ground level to wash their hands properly, they may as well come down a few minutes earlier to use proper toilets first.

More hand washing, and less washing of hands, all in one fell swoop.