In seemingly the blink of an eye, the Equal Opportunities Commission has completed 20 years of serving the Hong Kong community. On December 20, 1996, the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, under which the commission was established, came into full force when its employment-related provisions became effective. Since then, the EOC has been implementing the four related ordinances to give voice to those facing discrimination on the grounds of their sex, marital status, family status, pregnancy, disability and race.
In the 20 years to August this year, the EOC had handled more than 13,300 complaints and innumerable inquiries, and secured over HK$100 million in compensation for the complainants, as well as other forms of redress through conciliation and legal action.
While these figures represent the commission’s achievements through the years, a more important part of the work – perhaps less quantifiable and tangible – is to encourage social change. This is because prejudice, bigotry and often traditions are the biggest enemies of equality. For discrimination to be defeated, mindsets have to be reformed, and it is best done through education – one of our key areas of work.
However, since some of its work clashes with deep-rooted social values and the vested interests of different groups, the EOC faces controversies and opposition from time to time. For example, the judicial review initiated against the Education Department on the Secondary School Places Allocation System in 2000 and, more recently, the advocacy for better protection for the rights of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people, have stirred vigorous, and at times acrimonious, social debates.
Despite the sometimes controversial nature of its work, the commission has gained increasing recognition from society at large. Two decades ago, few were aware of its existence. Today, many understand the values it stands for and defends.
The latest Equal Opportunities Awareness Survey, results of which were released in July, showed 98 per cent of respondents were able, upon prompting, to identify the EOC as the organisation tasked with promoting equal opportunities and eliminating discrimination in Hong Kong. This can be compared to 95 per cent in 2007 and 87 per cent in 1998.
Contrary to popular belief that equality is merely “decorative” for a money-driven city like Hong Kong, equality actually makes good business sense.
In recent years, there has been a conscious movement for diversity and inclusion policies to be made explicit among high-flying businesses across a number of sectors, including finance and banking, law, information technology, and design and fashion.
The rationale is simple: people should be valued for what they are capable of, rather than who they are, because talented people find better incentives to contribute to a society where they feel welcome and at home.
The big corporations in ”Asia’s world city” know very well that an anti-discrimination policy championed by the government is crucial for Hong Kong businesses to go global and stay competitive. It also implies that the EOC plays a significant role in shaping Hong Kong’s future. To maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness, the commission finds it necessary to update anti-discrimination laws in tune with the times.
Between July and October 2014, the EOC consulted the public on their views on reforms to the existing anti-discrimination legislation, and submitted 73 recommendations, 27 of which were deemed of higher priority, to the government in March this year.
Apart from better safeguarding those vulnerable to discrimination, the reforms aim to make the scope of protection more comprehensive, and equal opportunity values a vital element of public policies.
We once again urge the government to seriously consider these recommendations, which Hong Kong gravely needs to live up to its reputation as a world-class, civilised and developed society, and revise the legislation to offer all those living and doing business in Hong Kong the protection they deserve.
For my part, I feel fortunate to have arrived at the door of Hong Kong’s gatekeeper on the equality front as it reaches its 20-year milestone this year.
Alfred CM Chan is chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission