Government-employed lifeguards have said that they are considering a strike in early August to protest against understaffing and unsatisfactory remuneration packages.

Alex Kwok Siu-kit, spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Kowloon Lifeguards’ Union, told HKFP that the union is planning a strike on August 2, which coincides with the “Sports for All Day” organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. The Hong Kong public will be able to use fee-charging public leisure facilities, including swimming pools, for free on the day.

Kwok said that the ongoing issue of under-staffing has put a lot of pressure on lifeguards and is a safety risk to the public. He said that the public lifesaving services are currently short of about 400 lifeguards. Since 2004, the government has reduced staffing from 2,400 to around 2,000, while opening around 15 new public pools and beaches.

The union has also demanded the government promote lifeguards from the “artisan” grade to “professional,” putting them on an equal footing with paramedics and firefighters. The “upgrade” will give lifeguards better remuneration packages that will in turn entice young people to enter the industry.

Lifeguards’ strike in September, 2014. Photo: Apple Daily.

Kwok said that the growing number of mainland tourists using public pools is another concern. On several occasions, Chinese tourists have been seen in the changing rooms packing goods for parallel trading. “The problem is not only restricted to the North District. Some of our colleagues have seen it in other districts such as Kowloon Park,” said Kwok.

The union organised two one-day strikes in August and September last year. Four hundred lifeguards participated in August, disrupting the lifesaving services in five public pools and two beaches. The lack of response from the government led to another wave of protests in September, which saw 700 lifeguards go on strike and the full or partial shutdown of 23 pools.

In the aftermath of the strike, the government hired around 2o new lifeguards and promised to review salaries, but refused to change the “artisan” grade. In June, the government announced a pay raise for all civil servants, including full-time lifeguards.

Lifeguards put up protest signs that say “understaffing brings danger to swimmers” and “no one wants to become a lifeguard because of the industry’s dim future”. Photo: Apple Daily.

It is unclear how many pools could be affected by the strike, as the 800-strong union is still consulting its members. “It may not be a citywide strike that will shut down all of the public pools,” said Kwok. “The number of pools that may be closed depends on how many lifeguards will join the strike.”

The government said that the union has not notified them of an upcoming strike. According to the LCSD, the number of government-employed lifeguards has increased by 27 percent since 2011, which is equivalent to an extra HK$14 million in the annual budget. The department denied that there is a shortage of manpower, adding that they will be hiring 21 more full-time lifeguards and 22 more temporary lifeguards in 2015-16.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.