[Hong Kong] Workplace discrimination against LGBT staff an ongoing problem

Though it proclaims itself a cosmopolitan society, Hong Kong is still grappling with LGBT issues, and the struggle may be most pronounced in the workplace, South China Morning Post reports.

According to experts workplace discrimination towards LGBT employees is an ongoing problem. Especially among manual jobs perceived as being suitable for only stereotypically ‘macho’ - assumed heterosexual - men. The discrimination can range from being the subject of tasteless jokes to being passed over for promotion. This discriminatory treatment also extends to social interaction.

Suen Yiu-tung - a gender studies professor at Chinese University - says negative encounters can be common in blue-collar occupations particularly in smaller, local companies where employees may be expected to tolerate workplace discrimination. He said, “LGBT workers in low positions don’t have much bargaining power. They are often forced to put up with it if they don’t want to strain their professional relationships with colleagues or jeopardise their position in the company.”

Currently, there are four anti-discrimination ordinances in Hong Kong on race, sex, family status and disability. Yet a law against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation remains off the government’s agenda. Ricky Chu Man-kin - the new chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the city’s equality watchdog - has made anti-discrimination initiatives to protect members of the LGBT community a top priority in his three-year term.

However, he disappointed the excited appetite for societal change following Taiwan’s legalisation of same-sex marriage by calling on the community to “change tack” and focus on “dealing with less controversial aspects of discrimination over sexual orientation”, such as those relating to employment.

From 2016-2018 there were 78 inquiries or complaints lodged with the EOC on discrimination over sexual orientation. But a spokeswoman says the commission does not have the legal power to resolve grievances, either by taking offenders to court or mandating conciliation sessions between relevant parties.

Cyd Ho Sau-lan - a former lawmaker and veteran campaigner for LGBT rights - says, “The government should take the lead to encourage companies to institute LGBT-friendly policies.
“These are important because a systemic change will allow everyone to be treated fairly, instead of leaving them to the mercy and whims of some individual managers.”

She recommends that training should be offered to managers and employees to make them more sensitive to LGBT co-workers.

A 2016 EOC survey found 56 per cent of Hong Kong residents supported anti-discrimination legislation for LGBT people in the city. By 2018 - in another study conducted jointly by the University of Hong Kong and CUHK - that figure had risen to 70 per cent.

Suen Yiu-tung says: “The government always says Hong Kong is not ready for this legislation, but the truth is Hong Kong is ready. It’s the government that isn’t ready. All we need is a bit of political leadership.”

A pledge centred on maintaining LGBT-friendly employment policies is already available for employers. A spokeswoman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau says that more than 350 private and public organisations employing 550,000 people have so far signed up for the code of practice against discrimination in employment. The pledge is not legally binding.