Equal rights in Hong Kong – change is coming
Written by Philip Howell-Williams on May 10, 2016.
Hong Kong’s modernity when it comes to business is in stark juxtaposition to its anti-discrimination legislation, which remains stuck in the dark ages, but change is happening.
The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) was set up in 1996 and drafted anti-discrimination legislation at that time based on four Anti-Discrimination Ordinances to promote equality and prevent discrimination throughout society on the grounds of sex, disability, family status or race. This legislation has altered little over the last two decades despite seismic changes in Hong Kong society and around the world in terms of demographics, politics, economics and family structure.
However, a comprehensive review commissioned in 2013 with the aim of simplifying, harmonising and modernising anti-discrimination legislation of all four ordinances hopes to implement much-needed amendments. The review has been carried out over the last three years with a survey covering almost 125,000 individuals and 288 companies, NGOs and organisations as well as a four-month public consultation last year. The aim was to simplify, harmonise and modernise anti-discrimination legislation. EOC Chairman Dr York Chow explained ‘Throughout the review, what has become clear is that there are multiple groups in society, including women, persons with disabilities, and ethnic minorities, who still cannot participate equally in everyday life and opportunities in this city.’
In March, after comprehensive analysis of the review, the EOC presented 73 recommendations to the government regarding proposed reforms to promote equality and eliminate discrimination in many different areas. 27 of these are considered to present pressing and serious concerns and accorded high priority status. The EOC believes that 22 of them are relatively simple to introduce, for example providing express protection from discrimination for people with disabilities who are accompanied by assistance animals and also in voting and standing for elections, giving women the right to return to a work position after maternity leave and making the definitions and protection against direct and indirect discrimination as well as harassment clearer and more consistent.
In addition, the EOC has recommended further research and consultation in several areas with a view to subsequently introducing legislative reform. These include protection from discrimination on the grounds of nationality, citizenship and residency status, and protection against marital and family status discrimination and possible legal recognition for persons in cohabiting relationships.
This latter is a subject particularly close to my own heart. In Hong Kong there is currently no system of legal recognition of couples in cohabiting relationships which, according to the EOC, is a situation which does not comply with international, and possibly local, human rights obligations to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of marital or relationship status. The discriminatory implications of this omission are huge and affect many aspects of the lives of unmarried, cohabiting couples including employment benefits, taxation payments, immigration rights, public housing, inheritance and family rights.
While in many parts of the world there have been advances in this area over the last decade or so with same-sex marriage now recognised in 20 countries and ten others recognising civil partnerships, certain elements of Hong Kong society (particularly highly vocal religious groups) remain staunchly opposed to changes in the law. It is good to hear that the EOC is tackling the subject head on and gives me hope that in the – hopefully not-too-distant – future cohabiting couples, whether straight or gay, will have the same rights as married couples. As a financial adviser, I know just how much impact this will have in many areas of financial planning.
Let’s hope that the government takes on board the EOC’s recommendations and brings about change sooner rather than later to eliminate discrimination for everyone, whatever their race, sex, disability or sexual orientation, and, by so doing, make Hong Kong a better and fairer place to live for all members of society.