Conference on Equality in the Asia Pacific 2018: Progress and Challenges Co-organised by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions

平等機會委員會主席陳章明教授致歡迎辭 (只備英文版)


Dr Samar, Prof Croucher, Kieren, honourable guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon. Thank you all for joining us today. On behalf of the EOC, I’d like to give a warm welcome to our distinguished speakers and panellists hailing from UN agencies, universities, foundations, NGOs, as well as national human rights bodies from across Asia Pacific. A big welcome also to our delegates from the APF. The EOC enjoys a longstanding affiliation with the APF, and we share the same year of establishment – 1996. We’re truly pleased and honoured to be able to host this conference with them.

It’s incredibly exciting to see so many faces in the room, both familiar and new. In fact, we have a 200-strong audience today, with guests from consulates, chambers of commerce, academic institutions, non-profit organisations, government departments and the legislature. You’ve all signed up AND showed up, and we thank you for that. We know you’re here because you care to make a difference.

The world is being swept up by waves of heated debate around our rights, our freedoms, and our dignity as human beings. The refugee crisis, the #MeToo movement, the ageing population challenge… the list goes on. These are global issues with local relevance, sparking pressing questions and touching on nerves common to us all: Is migration a zero-sum game? Can feminism empower women without antagonising men? Is pension a right or a privilege? It’s easy to get sucked into a whirlpool of polarised and populist politics, but not if we consciously and continuously engage in constructive, meaningful dialogue on occasions like today.

As Chairperson of the EOC, one question that I get asked all the time is: “How would you comment on the status of equality in Hong Kong?” The truth is, there’s no simple diagnosis. Stop a hundred people in the street and ask each of them to draw up a list of top ten injustices in Hong Kong. Chances are you’ll get a hundred different answers. But that’s fine, because prejudice and discrimination can and do creep into every nook and cranny of our lives. Even in the most fair and inclusive society, they may return to haunt us if we allow ourselves to be complacent. For that reason, we must take stock, review progress, and learn from each other’s experience – both the success stories and the failures. And that’s why the EOC has joined hands with APF to provide a platform for a candid exchange of insights and expertise, where we discuss our achievements relating to equality on local and regional levels, our ongoing and future challenges, as well as best practices and policies in eliminating discrimination.

Here in Hong Kong, female students enrolled in higher education programmes actually outnumber their male counterparts, but entrenched stereotypical thinking means that science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM, in short – remain largely male-dominated territory. Seven out of ten engineering graduates are men. Thanks to initiatives such as the Girls Go Tech Programme led by The Women’s Foundation, whose CEO Ms Fiona Nott is here with us today, we’ve begun work to help girls unleash their full potential and make STEM less of a men’s club. Still, there’s more gender prejudice to combat. We need to close the pay gap. We need to put more women in the boardroom, as what Fern and her organisation, Community Business have been doing. We need to ensure women can return to their jobs after their maternity leave, and stop forcing them to choose between their career and family. Research shows that motherhood penalty is a real thing, and it should have no place in Hong Kong or anywhere else.

Underpinning the Hong Kong economy and society, just as tirelessly as women, are our diverse and vibrant ethnic minority communities. They make up nearly 8% of our population, and that includes foreign domestic workers. While the law protects people of all races and ethnic origins from discriminatory treatment in education, employment and access to goods and services, the path to integration is rocky and rough. There’re kindergartens that never put up information on their websites in English. There’re recruiters who require candidates to meet Chinese proficiency levels that are disproportionate or, worse, irrelevant to the job they’re applying for. There’re landlords shutting their doors to fellow citizens who’re South Asian and looking for an apartment. There’re newspapers and Facebook groups trolling asylum seekers on a daily basis to the point of hate speech. Whether it’s a minor inconvenience, a glass ceiling or an outright death threat, it all stems from bias and prejudice, and we need cultural sensitivity and a sense of empathy instead to take root.

For persons with disabilities, or PWDs, in Hong Kong, life is just as hard. Their unemployment rate is double that of the general populace. Among those who are employed, over 70% work in low-skilled positions. That’s hardly surprising, for only 7.6% PWDs pursue higher education after secondary school, and that figure already excludes students with intellectual disabilities. It’s not that we don’t have solutions in place – both schools and employers can receive government funds to acquire assistive devices and modify built environments to accommodate students and employees with special needs – but hardware support is not a panacea. If people don’t appreciate the talents and abilities of PWDs in the first place, they won’t see the merit of these incentive schemes. If teachers, administrators and managers aren’t trained in working with PWDs, inclusive measures will never be properly implemented.

So what’s the role of the EOC in all this? We are, first and foremost, an enforcer of anti-discrimination laws. There’re currently four anti-discrimination ordinances in Hong Kong, namely the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, the Family Status Discrimination Ordinance and the Race Discrimination Ordinance. In effect, they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sex, pregnancy, marital status, race, and our responsibility to look after family members. The ordinances cover discrimination in various fields, including education, employment, provision of goods and services, management of premises, etc. A major part of the EOC’s work is thus handling enquiries and complaints from the public relating to discrimination. In 2017/18, we handled over 12,000 enquiries and a total of 821 complaints. Nearly 70% of the disputes that went into conciliation were successfully settled. And when a settlement cannot be reached, the aggrieved person may apply for legal assistance from us.

The EOC is also an instigator of change. There’re limitations and weaknesses with the laws I just mentioned, and in 2016 we put forward 73 recommendations to the Hong Kong Government on amending the existing ordinances to enhance the protection they offer. Three months ago, the Government announced its plan to submit a bill to the legislature by end of the year that would implement eight of those recommendations, including the introduction of an express provision prohibiting discrimination on the ground of breastfeeding. So that’s some good news, but of course we’re going to urge the Government to pick up speed and act on our other recommendations as well. The Race Discrimination Ordinance, for instance, does not apply to the exercise of Government functions and powers. And as some of you must have realised by now, none of our existing ordinances extend protection to people on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, which unfortunately renders cases of LGBTI discrimination outside our jurisdiction. Obviously there’re many more gaps to fill, and we shall be relentless in our advocacy.

All this work is further supported by our efforts in research, corporate training and public education. We conduct studies on the accessibility of our city’s taxis. We help businesses and non-profits develop anti-sexual harassment policies. We publish illustrated storybooks for kids and multi-language guides to financial services for ethnic minorities. Indeed, our strategy is to engage people of all ages and stakeholders from all sectors, because we know genuine equality will not come from an iron fist or a top-down policy. It has to be nurtured from bottom-up, with everyone – individuals, companies, institutions, civil society – earnestly understanding its value and playing an active role in creating a pluralistic and inclusive city free from discrimination. That, in short, is our vision.

With that, I’d like to welcome you all once again, and invite you to join us in the rigorous and timely discussions on equality that we’ll be having today and tomorrow. I myself look forward to being inspired, motivated and challenged, as we work together to build fair, just and equal societies for all in the Asia-Pacific region. Thank you very much, and have a good time.