Wednesday, October 16, 2019

As Hong Kong firms fall in line over protests, some workers push back

  • >> Raymond Zhong, Katherine Li and Ezra Cheung, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-08-24 16:33:15 BdST

bdnews24
FILE Photo: Anti-extradition bill protesters hold hands to form a human chain during a rally to call for political reforms at Mongkok, in Hong Kong, China, Aug 23, 2019. REUTERS

As big companies in Hong Kong squirm under pressure to denounce the continuing antigovernment protests in the territory or risk angering China, some of their employees are speaking out, raising the prospect of escalating labour tensions in the Asian financial capital.

On Friday, more than 1,000 people joined a march for accountants in Hong Kong’s financial district, some of them wearing surgical masks to hide their faces from their employers. They called on the Hong Kong government to answer protesters’ demands, even as the so-called Big Four global accounting firms that employ many of them have sought to distance themselves from the unrest.

Trade union representatives also held a news conference on Friday to demand that Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, reinstate the head of a flight attendants’ union who they said was fired without explanation this week.

Pressure from the Chinese authorities over some Cathay employees’ support for the demonstrations has already led this month to the resignation of the airline’s chief executive, Rupert Hogg.

“They are trying to silence everyone,” said Ada Wong, a 30-year-old accountant at Friday’s march, which was held over the lunch hour. “But if we don’t speak out, I’m afraid that Hong Kong will be no more.”

She said lashing out at major companies in Hong Kong would ultimately be self-defeating for China. “Our financial and business sector is important to them, so if they hurt us, they will be hurting themselves, too,” Wong said.

Decades ago, Hong Kong became a global hub of finance and commerce in part because of its proximity to mainland China, and also because the local authorities offered a hands-off approach to business.

But the mainland has grown much richer since then, and it now wields considerable influence over Hong Kong’s business environment. Mainland China now accounts for half of Hong Kong’s trade, and it provides about a quarter of all direct foreign investment in the territory.

As this summer’s protests continue to boil with no sign of resolution, China has begun to weaponise its clout to keep the business community on its side. So far, no company has suffered more consequences than Cathay Pacific, one of Hong Kong’s most storied global brands.

After many Cathay workers took part in a general strike this month, China’s aviation authority ordered the airline to bar employees who supported the protests from doing any work involving flights to mainland China. Hogg, Cathay’s chief executive, stepped down a week later, saying in a message to employees that the airline’s brand had come under enormous pressure, “particularly in the all-important market of mainland China.”

On Friday, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Flight Attendants’ Association, Rebecca Sy, said at a news conference that she had been fired this week. Hong Kong Dragon Airlines, also known as Cathay Dragon, is a unit of Cathay Pacific.

“We have never abandoned our company,” Sy said. “Unfortunately, however, the company has abandoned me.”

Sy said she was summoned this week to meet with Cathay representatives in Hong Kong. During the meeting, she said, the representatives showed her screenshots of posts from her private Facebook account and asked whether the account was hers.

After she said it was, the representatives told her that she was fired immediately, and that they could not tell her why, Sy said.

She acknowledged after the news conference that she had urged her friends on Facebook to attend recent protests at Hong Kong’s airport, and that she had shared articles and other material supporting the demonstrators.

“All my colleagues are terrified,” Sy said at the news conference. “I used to be the one to stand behind them, to back up all of my colleagues. But now, what I can do is to tell everyone what’s happening.”

In a statement, Cathay confirmed that Sy no longer worked for the company, and said that her departure was not connected to her work with the union. It is against the law in Hong Kong to fire an employee because of union activity.

Cathay said in the statement that “when deciding whether to terminate an employee, we take into account all relevant circumstances including applicable regulatory requirements and the employee’s ability to perform his/her job.”

A pro-democracy lawmaker, Andrew Wan, said that for Cathay to fire an employee for expressing personal opinions “can be counted as ‘unreasonable dismissal,’ which is illegal under the current labor ordinance.”

Carol Ng, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, said at the news conference that 11 people in Hong Kong’s aviation industry had been fired since the Chinese aviation regulator issued its orders to Cathay this month.

The pressure “doesn’t mean we will shut up,” Ng said.

At the accountants’ march, people wove through luxury shopping malls and elevated walkways on their way to the Hong Kong government’s headquarters. Organisers said 5,000 people joined the march.

Several people in surgical masks said they were employees of the Big Four accounting firms — PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young, now known as EY. That, they said, is why they were not willing to be interviewed.

Last week, those firms issued statements distancing themselves from a full-page ad supporting the protests that appeared in a Hong Kong newspaper. The ad was apparently signed and paid for by a group of anonymous employees of the companies.

Some of the marchers Friday wore the black T-shirts that have become the uniform of the summer’s protests. Others came dressed for the office.

“There is definitely a possibility that there will be consequences,” said Cherry Wong, 49, an independent financial adviser. “But as industry leaders, I think that the Big Four should stand firm on the side of Hong Kong people on this issue.”

Representatives for PwC and EY referred to earlier statements from the companies that condemned violence and illegal acts. The other two firms did not respond to requests for comment.

Kenneth Leung, a tax adviser and pro-democracy member of Hong Kong’s legislature who joined the accountants’ march, said that putting pressure on firms to speak out against the protests jeopardised the territory’s reputation as a business-friendly place.

“Hong Kong should be the freest economy, meaning that it should not be disturbed by pressure from governments,” Leung said. “We should be rational and leave business to business.”

 2019 New York Times News Service