While Taiwan has legalised same-sex marriage, HK is still struggling with workplace discrimination against LGBT staff is the city ready for change?

03-Jun-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:00 AM Print This Post

* Construction worker suffers cruel teasing from colleagues, while woman believes she was overlooked for managerial role

* New EOC chair Ricky Chu has made anti-discrimination initiatives to protect members of LGBT community a top priority

When construction worker Matrix Suen, 29, recently came out as gay to a senior colleague, he did not imagine his personal story, which took courage to reveal in an industry known for its masculine image, would be spread among others as a cruel joke.

It was a rude awakening for the diploma holder, who had worked for 11 years in various blue-collar vocations before realising his new workplace was not ready to accept his sexual orientation.

It had only been his second month in the job.

Despite billing itself as a cosmopolitan society, Hong Kong is still grappling with LGBT issues, and the struggle may be most pronounced in the workplace, according to experts, especially among manual jobs stereotyped as only for macho and assumed heterosexual men.

The discrimination can range from being the subject of tasteless jokes, as in Suen’s case, to being passed over for promotion. Yet, this also extends into the social sphere, in the form of ill-thought-out speeches, cold shoulders or dirty looks on a daily basis.

Suen Yiu-tung, a gender studies professor at Chinese University, says such encounters are common in blue-collar occupations particularly in small, local companies where employees are often expected to tolerate workplace discrimination.

“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,” he says.

There are four anti-discrimination ordinances in Hong Kong on sex, disability, family status and race, but a law against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is not on the government’s agenda.

Ricky Chu Man-kin, the new chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the city’s equality watchdog, has listed anti-discrimination initiatives to protect members of the LGBT community as a top priority in his three-year term.

But he dampened local euphoria for societal change following Taiwan’s legalisation of same-sex marriage two weeks ago, instead 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.

Between 2016 and last year, there were 78 inquiries or complaints on discrimination over sexual orientation lodged with the EOC. But a spokeswoman says the commission has no legal power to resolve grievances, whether it is by taking offenders to court or mandating conciliation sessions between relevant parties.

‘I wished a hole would open and swallow me up’

For Matrix Suen, who is still in his construction job as a project coordinator because he feels he has no choice but to take it on the chin, the harassment he suffered at work included instances of him being called “queer”, a derogatory term for gay men, and having a colleague tell others to beware of him.

“I was completely taken aback and lost for words at that moment. It just seemed so bizarre and out of place for him to bring up a totally irrelevant subject,” Suen recalls.

“I just wished a big hole would open up in the floor and swallow me up.”

He also adds: “I have second thoughts about taking pictures on a site to document work progress of colleagues, as I don’t want to give them the wrong impression,” referring to the paranoia of having his fellow workers think he is leering at them.

CUHK’s Suen Yiu-tung says: “Life’s been made harder for people like Matrix especially when there may not be many jobs in the industry out there and they want to avoid a reputation as a troublemaker. So they tend not to put their head above the parapet.”

While Matrix Suen soldiers on, the struggle started at an earlier stage for Yeo Wai-wai, 42. She missed out on a job after she told the truth when asked about her sexual orientation in her second round of interviews.

Yeo was eyeing a managerial position in an advertising company in 2011, after more than a decade in the industry, and she was optimistic about her chances after getting called back for a second meeting.

But when she returned to the company, Yeo was shocked to find she was not asked about her knowledge or experience in a one-on-one interview with a male senior manager.

“He asked me for my name, then in his second question he asked if I was a lesbian. I was flabbergasted but I just answered yes. Then he fired off a couple of mundane questions… and then he told me to go home and wait for their call,” she recalls.

“The call never came. What does my sexual preference have to do with my job ability?”

Such experiences highlight how members of the LGBT community continue to face discrimination in the workplace, as well as the lack of policy by companies to ensure their protection.

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 adds that more training should be offered to managers and employees to make them sensitive to LGBT people in their daily dealings with them.

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

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 spokeswoman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau says more than 350 public and private organisations employing 550,000 people have signed up for a code of practice against discrimination in employment.

The pledge centres on maintaining LGBT-friendly employment policies, but it is not legally binding.

Is there such a thing as reverse discrimination?

For 33-year-old lawyer Martin (not his real name), a more LGBT-friendly company policy and complaint mechanism is what he hopes to see.

Two years ago, Martin was transferred to his law firm’s British branch for six months and told his employer his boyfriend would stay with him in a flat provided by his company in London. The landlord of the property, however, saw the couple and asked about their relationship.

Martin was later told by the firm’s officer in charge of logistics that the landlord was unhappy her flat would be occupied by a gay couple. Instead of siding with him, the officer told Martin he had violated company rules and had not communicated his accommodation plans properly.

Although he complained about the officer and was ultimately granted rental of the flat, he felt doubly discriminated against when his company made light of his complaint.

“I felt scared knowing about the landlord’s homophobic attitude. I didn’t feel safe living in the flat as she had access to it,” he says.

While Taiwan legalising same-sex marriage has spurred the LGBT community in Hong Kong to push authorities to follow suit, a wave of conservative voices is intent on stemming the tide.

Choi Chi-sum, general secretary of conservative group the Society for Truth and Light, argues new laws protecting LGBT people will lead to reverse discrimination against straight individuals, adding that current safeguards such as education to raise awareness will suffice.

“Anti-discrimination legislation will hand special privileges to LGBT people and silence the voice of those opposed to their lifestyles,” Choi says, citing cases such as same-sex marriages and the adoption of children by LGBT couples.

“If they want to protect LGBT people from being discriminated against at interviews, do we need to cast the net wider to protect fat and ugly people from being discriminated against during the hiring process too?”

Suen Yiu-tung disagrees with Choi’s views, arguing reverse discrimination is a myth, adding “all anti-discrimination ordinances protect not just the historically disadvantaged, but also the opposite side.

“Like the sex discrimination ordinance, it protects both women and men equally from being discriminated against.”

The professor also says worries about ordinary law-abiding citizens falling foul of any new law are unfounded. He stresses any education programme needs to go hand in hand with legal protection.

As for Matrix Suen, the battle continues, but he has learned to stay positive: “I don’t regret coming out at work actually, because this is part of who I am.

“I hope one day there will be no discrimination in Hong Kong, and LGBT people can take pride in who they are and who they love.”



Category: Hong Kong

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