“Magna Carta for the 21st Century – Equality in the Workplace”
Organised by the British Consulate General Hong Kong

Remarks by Dr York Y.N. CHOW, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission (只備英文版)


Lord Faulks; Consul-General Wilson; Stephen; Fern; esteemed guests; ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here today to speak on the topic of “Equality in the workplace”, and to be involved in the series of events being hosted for the Magna Carta’s global tour. Indeed, it is a special opportunity for Hong Kong to be able to see this seminal legal document that has inspired so many throughout the years. So my thanks to the British Consulate General for this invitation.

Although in its beginning, the Magna Carta was only meant to cover “freed men”, who made up very few of the general population of medieval England, it did help to spark the notion that individuals have inherent rights which cannot be denied. Most significantly, the Magna Carta, as you know, sets out the principle of “equality before the law” – a principle that has been at the foundation of subsequent centuries of human development as well as the ongoing evolution of the meaning of liberty, freedom, human rights, and justice.

This is a vital concept for the Equal Opportunities Commission and our statutory duty to eliminate discrimination here in Hong Kong. The notion that there are rights and freedoms which belong to all, whatever their status, is part and parcel of our belief that no one should be discriminated for their individual characteristics. For surely one of the most fundamental rights of all humans is the right of non-discrimination. 

At the moment in our city, there are four laws to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sex, disability, family status and race. Although we are one of the few jurisdictions in Asia with specific anti-discrimination laws, there are some obvious gaps in the existing legal protection, such as for sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or beliefs, and age. 

Even for the grounds that are covered by the existing legislation, inequality remains. Many women continue to bear a disproportionate portion of family care responsibilities, and especially for low-income families who cannot afford to hire help. This means that women are often under pressure to take on part-time and lower-paying roles. For instance, women have consistently made up the bulk of the workforce in the low-paying sectors such as catering, caring, cashiering and cleaning. Not surprisingly, the poverty rate for women in Hong Kong has been consistently higher than men for the last decade. 

Other than poverty, women also face pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. Indeed, these continue to be the most common complaints received by the EOC under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance. And, of course, women still remain woefully underrepresented in senior leadership positions across a variety of sectors, including the Government and academia. Currently, only one-fifth of the members of the Executive Council of the Government are women. The proportion of female Members in the Legislative Council is also low at 16 percent, particularly when viewed in comparison to other comparable jurisdictions. Meanwhile, there are no female presidents in any of our universities.

We also see that ethnic minorities and people with disability face significant barriers to equal opportunities in Hong Kong’s workplace. We have heard of how job applicants are asked to come in for interviews, only to be told that there are no positions available once the interviewer realizes that the applicant is an ethnic minority or has a disability. We have also been told of refusals to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ disability or other needs relating to their religious and cultural practices. This is plainly unacceptable.

A major obstacle to equal employment opportunities stems from the difficulties both ethnic minorities and people with disability face in accessing education. Indeed, in a qualifications-centric city like Hong Kong, the ability to access good education is a key factor for getting a good job. For both ethnic minorities and people with disability, their ability to access equal education remains hampered by both attitudinal and institutional hurdles, including limited manpower and training. This has real impact on their ability to gain tertiary qualifications and find employment. 

To address these inequalities in the workplace, the efforts must begin at school. Particularly, efforts should be made to create an inclusive school environment, for education is where one learns about equal opportunity values, and inclusive attitudes really begin at school, as children interact with one another. That is why a diverse and caring school environment is so important, since it teaches children values that would make them a more inclusive colleague, employee, and manager later on, not to mention being a more inclusive community member.

Many of these are issues of a systemic nature, and we need to tackle them at multiple levels, starting with policies as well as a willingness and ability to mainstream equal opportunity considerations into policymaking. 

Indeed, you have heard about the perspectives of business and civil society in promoting equality in the workplace. I have been asked today to share my thoughts on the role of the Government in ensuring the same. I am a believer in cross-sectoral collaboration and sharing of good practices between the public and private sectors, and that there is much to learn from each other. I also strongly believe that the Government can, and should, take leadership in these key areas. They can set a good example, particularly to those who may be resistant to implementing equal opportunity measures at work. 

Certainly, there are some concrete ways that the Government can be a leader on this front. First, they can do more to hire ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities into the civil service. As of latest statistics available, people with disability and ethnic minorities each make up only around 2 percent of civil servants. I have been advocating for the Government to hire more ethnic minorities as civil servants by recognizing third-language capabilities in the recruitment process, particularly in roles that provide direct service to the public. We believe that this would lessen the reliance on interpreters and ensure that public services are accessible by all. Nevertheless, many of the newly-created positions continue to be short-term or temporary, which does not provide long-term career prospects for ethnic minority applicants. They can also do better to ensure that the voices of ethnic minorities and people with disability are mainstreamed into policymaking by considering more representatives from these groups when making appointments to advisory boards. 

The Government can also do more to address the hurdles that continue to hold women back from becoming more economically self-reliant and from advancing in the workplace. These include promoting more family-friendly measures at work, and being a role model themselves in terms of promoting the representation of women, particularly at the senior leadership level. 

In the Policy Address 2015, the Government has announced that the appointment rate of women to Government advisory and statutory bodies should be raised from 30 percent to 35 percent. The Government has also committed to widening the use of the Gender Mainstreaming Checklist in all Government bureaux and departments. This is a positive step, but more can be done – for instance, by advocating the use of such a checklist by other organisations outside of the Government, including all subvented organisations and business partners. They can also take similar measures for other underrepresented groups. 

We also feel that the Government can, and should, do more to address the gaps in legal protection for vulnerable groups, whether by considering new legislation for unprotected groups or by amending existing ones. The EOC has taken steps to facilitate this by launching the Discrimination Law Review to consider loopholes in the current discrimination legislation, including measures to address systemic inequality such as whether a proactive duty to accommodate those with disability should be implemented. We will be making submissions to the Government on recommended next steps in the coming few months. 

We have also launched research on the feasibility of legislating against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex status, as well as an exploratory study on age discrimination in employment. And we have been advocating that the Government should, based on the recommendations of the Court of Final Appeal in the landmark W v Registrar of Marriages case, consider comprehensive process for gender recognition which would not require applicants to have undergone full gender reassignment surgery as a pre-condition. Indeed, the Court referred directly to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act as a possible model. 

Furthermore, we have been calling for greater legal protection from discrimination for LGBTI persons in various aspects of daily life, including employment and education. Currently, many feel that they cannot be open about who they are at work and need to lie when asked about their private life. They may face dismissal if their sexual orientation or gender identity is known to their employer. This is a particularly real problem for teachers and social workers, since many of our schools and social service providers are affiliated to religious groups who do not accept homosexuality. But what does one’s sexual orientation have to do with their ability to teach or to counsel a student in crisis? More must be done to protect these employees from being mistreated for being who they are. 

By conducting these major exercises, the EOC hopes to facilitate constructive public discussion on how to better protect the right of all people to be free from discrimination, as well as to provide concrete evidence and justification for the Government’s consideration in making necessary policy changes. We feel that they will be essential in informing Hong Kong’s path to equality for the future.

A number of these reports are scheduled to be released over the coming few months, so we hope that you can also help to lend your views and support once they are available. Indeed, at this crucial point in the development of Hong Kong’s equality landscape, it is vital that businesses, civil society, and the Government are in dialogue and able to work closely together. The voices of all stakeholders, including companies as well as frontline advocates, are much needed in the legislative process, to ensure that multiple perspectives are taken into consideration. It is our hope that, in the days ahead, we all can work together towards a more inclusive society here in Hong Kong, where the ideas of ‘equality before the law’, as laid out so many centuries ago in the Magna Carta, can be realised.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have always believed that a successful civil society must be one that can protect the minorities – those who are disadvantaged, marginalised, or stereotyped. Legal protection is essential, but the law can often only provide the minimal standard. Driving a workplace culture that is truly and sustainably non-discriminatory and respects all people requires multiple collaborative actions across sectors, from solid policies, to strong advocacy, to a more accepting attitude fostered through public education led by a government that is committed to building equality for now and the future. We must go beyond what is legal to doing what is right, just, and, quite simply, decent. And the Government should be a role model on this front for all.

Thank you again for your invitation. I look forward to your questions.