Twentieth Annual Meeting and Biennial Conference of The Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APFNHRI)
Speech by Dr York Y.N. CHOW, Chairperson, Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission
Work of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Hong Kong
Mr Byambadorj (Mr Jamsran Byambadorj, Chief Commissioner, National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia and Chairperson, Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions); distinguished delegates; ladies and gentleman,
I am delighted to be here to present you with an update on the work of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong operates under the principle of “One Country, Two System”, with a number of safeguards on a wide range of rights within our jurisdiction. We have four anti-discrimination ordinances, which prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy, disability, family status, and race. The EOC is the independent statutory body tasked to implement these laws. Our vision is to create a pluralistic and inclusive society free of discrimination where there is no barrier to equal opportunities.
The EOC’s Role and Functions
A large part of the EOC’s work is handling enquiries and complaints concerning discrimination from the public. In 2014, the EOC handled 20,089 enquiries and a total of 828 complaints, with a successful conciliation rate of 73%. In cases where conciliation failed, aggrieved persons may apply for legal assistance from us.
The EOC also understands that addressing discrimination effectively must also involve changing prejudicial mindsets. We do so through initiating research, advocating policy changes, engaging different segments of the community, and undertaking a variety of publicity and education programmes to widen public understanding on equal opportunity issues and values.
The EOC’s Strategic Priority Work Areas
Through extensive consultation with key stakeholders and the Board of the EOC, the Commission has identified the following priority work areas. I will now highlight their latest progress.
1. The Discrimination Law Review (DLR)
Most of our Discrimination Ordinances were enacted almost 20 years ago. The Commission is conducting a comprehensive review of these laws, given our belief that there is a need to modernize and strengthen them in keeping with international trends and best practices. From July to October 2014, we consulted the public to seek views on a wide range of related topics and proposals, including consolidating the various laws into a single piece of legislation; introducing a public sector equality duty; expanding the definition of family status to expressly include breastfeeding women; and expanding the definition of race to include nationality and citizenship. The exercise drew approximately 130,000 public submissions. The EOC is now analyzing the data gathered and will make a report and recommendations to the Government in due course.
2. Legal Protection for Sexual Minorities from Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
At present, there is a lack of solid understanding among the Hong Kong community of the discrimination facing sexual minorities, and we believe that there is a need for the EOC to examine, speak out, and enhance the community’s awareness in this area. In order to gain better insight and solicit views on the approaches to combat discrimination, the EOC commissioned the “Feasibility Study of Legislating against Discrimination on the Grounds of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status” in May 2014, which report will be available later this year. The Commission also co-organized an international symposium in August 2014, “Working Together for an Inclusive Society: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Rights in Comparative Perspective”, with the aim of learning from the experience of other countries in order to map our own approach. Through these and other activities, we hope to spark a rational and constructive dialogue between parties with differing views.
3. Education and Employment Opportunities for Ethnic Minorities
Currently, 6.4% of our population are non-Chinese, and commonly termed as Ethnic Minorities. Over the last few years, the EOC has intensified efforts to tackle the systemic barriers encountered by the ethnic minorities in accessing equal opportunities of education and employment via a variety of initiatives, including ongoing dialogue with policymakers and key stakeholder groups, in order to monitor and assess the effectiveness of current and new measures. Recently, with additional recurrent funding from the Government, the EOC has set up a dedicated unit to address the specific needs and difficulties faced by ethnic minorities through policy advocacy, training, and community outreach. The Commission will continue to monitor closely the situation and identify areas for improvement.
4. Integrated Education for Students with Special Educational Needs and its Impact on Employment Opportunities
Many students with special educational needs (SEN) and/or disabilities, including both Chinese and non-Chinese speaking students, still struggle for equal education. The EOC is in close dialogue with key stakeholder groups, including tertiary institutions and the Government to encourage further action, including early identification of students’ needs, better training for teachers and greater support for parents and students. In recognition that access to higher education is a key to future employment opportunities, the EOC has instigated the formation of a “Local Tertiary Education Institutes Platform”, which serves as a springboard for discussing equal opportunity issues of common concern and sharing best practices among the institutions. In November 2014, the University Grants Committee allocated a special one-off funding of HK$20 million for its funded institutions to enhance support for students with SEN in 2015/16, with input from the EOC.
5. Adopting an Updated and Unified Definition of Disability in the Performance of Government Functions
The EOC has been actively urging the Government to broaden and standardize the definition of “disability” for its services by taking into account attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder people with disabilities from participating in society. The EOC will continue to advocate for greater employment opportunities and accessibility for people with disabilities to facilitate their equal participation in society.
6. Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign in the Community
The EOC adopts a multi-pronged strategy for combating sexual harassment, including conducting research; providing training; and initiating publicity projects to enhance the community’s awareness and understanding of this issue. Our research highlights the situation of sexual harassment in a variety of settings, including education, service provision, and sports, and against vulnerable populations such as foreign domestic workers. We also examined the preparedness of organizational management in preventing and handling sexual harassment complaints. The Commission has developed resources, such as for school administrators, to facilitate them to take proactive steps to ensure a harassment-free environment in their own organization.
Preventing Torture and Protecting the Rights and Dignity of People Held in Places of Detention
Other than these strategic priorities, the Commission regularly voices our concerns about discrimination-related issues, even those not directly covered by the existing laws. We are concerned, for example, about the protection of the dignity of people held in places of detention and their right to non-discrimination.
We also recognize that certain groups may be particularly vulnerable to abuse and degrading treatment due to factors such as their gender, race, or other characteristics. For instance, the EOC, through our Funding Programme of Research Projects on Equal Opportunities 2013/14, supported a qualitative study by the Transgender Resource Centre to examine the situation of transgender people and the security services, including the Police, Immigration Department and the Correctional Services Department. The findings suggest that some security officers may not have a firm understanding of transgender people and the gender transition process – leading to a lack of sensitivity which may infringe upon their rights and dignity while in detention. The study supports the EOC’s views that there remains a need to raise awareness and challenge misunderstanding about sexual minorities, including transgender people, among the general public as well as frontline public service providers.
The EOC has also urged the disciplinary services to recruit more people with ethnic minority language skills, in order to ensure that the services provided, including in detention, are multi-lingual and culturally appropriate for our diverse community.
Other than those held in places of detention, there are also groups in Hong Kong who are at higher risk of forced detention and extreme abuse. For instance, according to a 2013 Amnesty Report, foreign domestic workers, nearly all of whom are women, are vulnerable to debt bondage from the illegal overcharging of agency fees, and many were restricted in their movement, including not being allowed to leave the house and having their identity documents taken away by the employer or employment agency. The situation leaves them susceptible to prolonged abuse since they cannot leave the employment. In 2014, the EOC published a survey on sexual harassment and other discrimination faced by foreign domestic workers, which found that employers and others residing in the household were the most common perpetrators of sexual harassment – a particularly worrying situation given that foreign domestic workers are required to live with their employers. The EOC has publicly expressed our concern over the mistreatment of foreign domestic workers. We have stepped up our publicity and promotion efforts, including producing targeted resource materials, to facilitate the protection of equal rights for foreign domestic workers. The governments of the labour-exporting countries should also actively monitor employment agencies working with their citizens to ensure that they are not engaging in exploitative practices.
On behalf of the EOC, I extend our thanks for the invitation to share our work with you. The APF provides a needed platform to allow various institutions in the region to exchange ideas towards achieving our mutual goal: The development of human rights and equal opportunities for all. We believe that our operational experience over the last two decades allows us to make a meaningful contribution to this dialogue, and we hope to learn from all of you. I wish all the delegates and participants a successful meeting and sharing here in Ulaanbaatar.
Dr. York Y.N. CHOW
Chairperson, Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission