21 October 2016
Dr York Chow, a vocal champion of minority rights, has been asked to go after serving just one term as head of Hong Kong's Equal Opportunities Commission. Photo: HKEJ
Dr York Chow, a vocal champion of minority rights, has been asked to go after serving just one term as head of Hong Kong's Equal Opportunities Commission. Photo: HKEJ

There’s a heavy price to pay for discrimination

What part of this is so difficult to understand?

Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation is as much a problem for society as a whole as it is for those who are the direct victims of discrimination.

Sometimes it seems that the rest of world has passed Hong Kong by as other societies have long realized that they are diminished by manifestations of discrimination in their midst while Hong Kong still struggles to achieve basic anti-discrimination legislation and tolerates very unhealthy levels of prejudice without batting an eyelid.

After three years of hard labor the government’s Equal Opportunities Commission has completed a review of anti-discrimination laws and come up with 73 recommendations for change. Not only is it astounding that this has taken so long but it is almost a near certainty that an even longer hiatus will ensue before the government does anything, if indeed it does anything.

Even though the EOC considered 125,000 public submissions to come up with its conclusions, it is more than likely that the government’s response to these proposals will be, wait for it… launch a public consultation on the grounds that these matters are sensitive, complex and controversial. They will probably find other grounds because the bureaucracy has a world class reputation for prevarication.

Meanwhile Asia’s self-proclaimed ‘world city’ will lumber on behaving appallingly to all manner of people who fail to confirm to the ‘norm’.

I am tempted to write about this on moral grounds, because there is something inherently gut wrenching about discrimination but moral grounds, lamentably, doesn’t get you far in this hard-headed place.

So let’s focus on some practical issues. And where better to start than in the workplace where discrimination against women deprives companies and organizations of some of their best talent as the road to promotion is blocked.

Then there is the not so small matter of how pregnant women are treated before and after giving birth.

This is widely used as an excuse to keep them from advancing their careers although in other societies, discrimination against pregnant women is outlawed and companies go to great lengths to make the workplace more amenable for families with very young children. And guess what, this effort pays off and companies, if anything, get more out of their workforce with these arrangements in place.

Then there is the widespread discrimination in Hong Kong against people with disabilities, some of which are relatively mild but nonetheless appear to render people in this situation as being less than ‘normal’. Here is another gross wastage of resources because, and I know this as an employer, disabled people tend to be among the most loyal members of the workforce.

Moving on but still in the work zone was a recent court case in which a foreign resident in Hong Kong, employed at a relatively senior level by her company, applied for the right of her same sex partner to be granted residency, as is the case for other couples.

The court upheld the Immigration Department’s discriminatory policy in this case and sent out a clear message to international companies using Hong Kong as a base. That message was: keep your gay employees away, they are not welcome here.

No doubt this will delight the very active band of bigots who suffer from extreme forms of homophobia but it will go down very badly with many of the largest companies who operate here or are thinking of doing so.

In most developed countries discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is so absurd that it is barely discussed but it gets discussed when such discrimination arises and leads to boycotts and controversy.

Make no mistake: when large companies embark on plans for establishing new offices they factor in matters like this and if Hong Kong wishes to be known as a backwater that officially tolerates sexual orientation discrimination, there is a price to pay.

As for wasting the skills, knowledge and experience of older people, we see that the government itself plays a leading role in enforcing discrimination in the workplace by forcing employees to retire, even when they are perfectly capable of carrying on.

So, here are some of the practical consequences of discrimination but what of the official mindset in these matters?

If there was a scintilla of doubt over official commitment to eradicating discrimination it can be quickly erased by seeing how the Chief Executive abruptly ended York Chow’s chairmanship of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Overriding normal practice he was told to go after serving only one term in office. Usually, office holders of organizations like this serve at least a couple terms.

And what was Dr Chow’s offense?

The answer is clear: he decided to take his work seriously and became a notable advocate for equal opportunities. He was then heavily criticized for being ‘biased’.

Somehow he failed to understand that the main requirement of the job was to preserve the illusion of commitment to equal opportunities while ensuring that nothing was actually done to change the reality on the ground.

The government has apparently found a replacement for Dr Chow who understands this much better.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

EJI Weekly Newsletter