Equal Opportunities Commission



Annual General Meeting 2012
Organised by Hong Kong Family Law Association

“Family Status Discrimination and the Challenge of Achieving Work-Life Balance” — Speech by Mr LAM Woon-kwong, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission



Mr. Egerton, honoured guests, friends,

Good evening. Thank you for inviting me.

I was asked to share a few thoughts on “Family Status Discrimination and the Challenge of Achieving Work-Life Balance” – the latter being something, I think, that is familiar to all of us. To begin, I want to share with you the case of Mr. Lee. 

The Case of Mr. Lee

This was a real-life complaint case lodged to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Mr. Lee was employed as a warehouse assistant for more than 9 years. He worked the day shift from 8am to 5pm. His wife works as a salesperson on the night shift from 2pm to 10pm. Mr. Lee was responsible for preparing dinner for his 10-year old son, and had been exempted by his former supervisor from working overtime, though during peak season he did so anyway until 7pm. The company later insisted that all its employees must work overtime until at least 9pm. Mr. Lee, given his responsibility of caring for his young son, could not comply with that requirement. The company then dismissed him.

A Struggle for Balance

In fact, such situations remain common in Hong Kong. I am sure that many of us have felt that difficulty when the demands of our jobs and our personal lives clashed. In Mr. Lee’s case, his struggles were compounded by his company’s refusal to consider his needs. 

Our “Work Hard/Worker Harder” Culture

Many in Hong Kong struggle to achieve balance. Part of the reason for this is, of course, our legendary hard-work ethic. Our city has long been notable for the industriousness of its people, who are willing to put in long hours at the office. 

Long Hours Leave Little Time for Life

This leaves little time for much else. In fact, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the South China Morning Post and the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme, less than one-quarter of the respondents see their average working week run at 40 hours, as recommended by the International Labour Organisation, or below. Almost half work over 50 hours a week. According to another recent survey done by the office provider, Regus, 57 percent of Hong Kong workers put in nine or more hours per day. This is significantly higher than the global average of 48 percent.

Limited Childcare Support

The struggle for work-life balance is further complicated by the limited childcare support available. This is particularly relevant for lower-income workers, such as Mr. Lee in my previous example, who cannot afford to hire a domestic worker. Employer-provided facilities such as on-site childcare services are almost non-existent across the income spectrum, as evidenced in recent survey results from the NGO, Community Business. Other policy measures remain barebones. As you know, paternity leave is not mandatory except for civil servants, who get only 5 days. All female employees are entitled to 10 weeks of maternity leave here, a relatively paltry amount compared to many other developed countries. 

Ageing Population Adds to Family Responsibility

Moreover, our ageing population means that many people also have the responsibility to care for their elderly relatives. The elderly dependency ratio has grown 13% since 2000. According to the Government’s projections, the elderly dependency ratio is expected to double by 2039. Without adequate support services and long-term policy planning, this will add a significant burden to Hong Kong’s workers.

Corporate Culture for Work-Life Balance Still Lacking

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s understanding and acceptance of work-life balance remains limited. Almost one-third of respondents in Community Business’ survey said that work-life balance is not talked about at all in their company. In addition, the culture of face time remains prevalent, with a considerable number of workers and managers still feeling that they must stay in the office until late to show commitment. 

Inadequate Family-friendly Policies

Not surprisingly, given the lack of understanding, relatively few companies have put in place a formal policies or guidance to promote a family-friendly work environment. In the EOC’s own survey in 2006, we found that only 10% had such policies in place.  

Gender Stereotypes Prevalent

The absence of structural support stems in part from the prevalence of gender stereotypes, which dictate that household and family care duties remain women’s domain.

Women Bear Unequal Burden at Home

This adds disproportionately to women’s burden. Government statistics reveal that women currently spend more than thrice the number of hours spent by men on household duties such as family care, cleaning, and cooking. Many of these women also hold down jobs. In fact, many female workers cite the struggle they face in balancing work and family demands as the primary factor that pushes them to resign. 

But Men Also Face Greater Expectations at Home

Yet with the changes in family dynamics, many men also face greater expectation on their role as a father and husband. The EOC recently did a study on this topic. We found that men who wish to spend more time at home struggle against social prejudice as well as an absence of institutional support for such a role.

Hong Kong’s Legal Framework

Currently in Hong Kong, legal protection does exist to protect those with family responsibility from discrimination. I now turn to a quick overview of the Family Status Discrimination Ordinance, or FSDO, which is one of the laws implemented by the Equal Opportunities Commission.

The Family Status Discrimination Ordinance

The FSDO is an anti-discrimination law passed in 1997. It makes it unlawful for anyone or any organisation to discriminate against a person, male or female, on the basis of family status. The FSDO applies to seven different areas, namely: Employment; Education; Provision of goods, facilities or services; Disposal or management of premises; Eligibility to vote for and to be elected or appointed to advisory bodies; Participation in clubs; and Activities of Government. 

Defining “Family Status”

But what is Family Status? The law defines it as the responsibility for the care of an immediate family member, namely a person who is related by blood, marriage, adoption or affinity. 

“Responsibility of Care”

For our purposes today, I would like to focus on two key concepts related to determining family status. The first is determining “responsibility of care.” In assessing if someone has the responsibility of care for others, we normally take into account three major factors. The first is that person A has assumed the responsibility for person B. So, if we think back to the case of Mr. Lee and his son, this is fairly clear. Another example may be that person A has an elderly uncle who has moved in with him and a sick sister who lives with her husband in her own home. Person A likely has assumed responsibility to care for his uncle, but perhaps not his sister. 

The second factor is the regularity of that care. Person A must be “usually responsible” for the care of person B to have family status. In Mr. Lee’s case, he is usually responsible for the care of his son in the evening, given that his wife works the night shift.

Finally, we consider the availability of an alternative. Does person A have another person who can help him care for person B, such as another family member or a domestic worker? In Mr. Lee’s case, he cannot afford to hire a domestic worker, and given his wife’s schedule, he does not have much alternative to help him care of his son. 


Another major consideration is the justifiability of the requirement or rule, versus the exemption from such rule requested by the complainant. In employment-related cases, we look at balancing the operational needs of the company and the effects on individual employees. 

For instance, we saw a complaint case from a man whom I will call Ah Cheung. Ah Cheung is a coach driver whose day off was Sunday. As clients now required transport services on Sunday, all drivers were requested to work on Sunday and take their day-off on a weekday instead. Ah Cheung claimed that the bus company’s rule was a form of indirect family status discrimination, as he needed to help his elderly parents do their chores or take them to eat out on Sunday. 

Upon investigation, the EOC determined that although the new requirement could be discriminatory in effect, it was justifiable from the company’s operational needs standpoint. As for the effect on Ah Cheung, it was not a strict requirement for him to look after his parents on Sunday, as he could admittedly perform the same duties on a weekday. The new requirement caused no detriment to him and therefore was not unlawful.

Barriers to Enforcement

There are a number of barriers to the enforcement of the FSDO. The most significant is perhaps the lack of understanding about the concept of “family status” in Hong Kong, despite the fact that we intuitively all have a responsibility to care for others. There is also the difficulty in finding the balance between different parties’ needs. With limited awareness came, correspondingly, a smaller number of complaints. The FSDO regularly makes up the smallest number of complaints received by the EOC. Even fewer make it to court, which leaves us with practically no legal precedents locally. 

Facing Hong Kong’s Work-life Challenges

So we have a long way to go both to increase awareness about people’s protection from family status discrimination as well as to educate the public about the benefits of work-life balance.

Change Mindsets

First and foremost, we must change the work-fixated culture and mindset in this city. And we can do this by emphasizing the benefits of work-life balance on employee engagement and talent retention, particularly to senior and mid-level managers. In the recent Community Business study, 71% of respondents felt that work-life balance affects their decision to join or leave a company as well as their motivation and productivity. This figure is especially high among the younger Generation Y, which shows that it has a tangible impact on recruiting and retaining fresh talent, especially as this generation becomes more prominent in the workforce.

Integrate Family Considerations into Policy Planning

Employers should proactively put in place policies and guidelines that ensure a family-friendly workplace. At the EOC, for instance, we have established policies on paternity leave in addition to marriage leave and compassionate leave, which are clearly and transparently communicated to our staff. 

Employers should also take their employees’ views into consideration in the formulation of policies, in order to maximize the uptake of work-life initiatives in place. The recent Community Business survey found that the most commonly provided work-life initiative for Hong Kong employees was career breaks, unpaid or part-paid personal leave, and sabbaticals. Yet respondents also noted that they felt the most effective work-life initiative is “flexible working time”, not what is most frequently provided, indicating a mis-match between what is offered and what employees want. By taking the staff’s opinion into consideration, this could have the effect of making them employers of choice and improve their employees’ ability to manage their various needs. 

Strengthen Legal Framework

The Government should also give consideration to strengthening legal framework to encourage work-life balance for employees. It has already taken the step to offer paternity leave to civil servants, but this remains miles behind international standards. 

What’s more, by facilitating work-family balance, the government would demonstrate its commitment to breaking down prevailing gender stereotypes, provide equal opportunities for working women and men, and be a major step towards gender equality.

Legislating Maximum Working Hours?

One way to do this, as the recent public debate suggests, is to legislate maximum working hours. According to the SCMP/HKU survey in 2010, the majority of respondents felt that this would be a helpful measure for work-life balance. Certainly, the government should give due consideration to any measure that would help its workers achieve harmony between their professional and personal lives, for the sake of long-term growth and health of the society. 

We still have some ways to go to improving the work-life balance situation in our city. But there have been signs of improvement. More employers are becoming aware of the benefits, in dollar terms, of building a sustainable work environment for employees. As we see the generational shift in our workforce, I believe this issue will take greater prominence in the years to come. In addition to building up structural support through family-friendly policies, we also have to create a culture where each individual could flexibly find a work-life fit that would enable them to perform their best.

The EOC looks forward to working with you to make work-life balance a reality for our City.

Thank you, and do enjoy your evening.