Hong Kong Could Hold Employers Liable for Harassment by Passengers

June 25, 2014

A Hong Kong legislator backing a bill to help protect flight attendants from sexual harassment by passengers will seek to add language making employers liable for enforcing it.

“Without that liability, the law will be very much passive,” Lee Cheuk-yan, legislative councilor and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions general secretary, said by phone.

The territory’s Legislative Council is set today to consider the proposal to widen the prohibition against sexual harassment that now covers only employee behavior toward colleagues and customers. The amendment addresses rising concern that service workers including airline attendants don’t have adequate means to respond to inappropriate touching, sexual innuendo and propositions from patrons.

“Our only concern will be on employers’ vicarious liability,” said Dora Lai, chairwoman of the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union. “If we report incidents and we don’t get any support from our employer, then it will be a problem.”

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. said it already has protections in place for flight attendants, declining to elaborate further.

“We do not tolerate any form of harassment and take the issue of sexual harassment very seriously,” Cathay said in an e-mailed response to questions. “We support active measures that discourage and prevent its occurrence in the workplace. This is a society-wide issue that should be addressed by all sectors and industries.”

Equal Opportunities

Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission released a survey in February showing that 27 percent of respondents had been sexually harassed on flights in the previous 12 months. About 59 percent of the incidents were by customers, with the other 41 percent by colleagues such as senior cabin crew and cockpit crew members.

Hong Kong’s Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill 2014 (Cap. 480) would “make it unlawful to sexually harass providers or prospective providers of goods, facilities or services.” The law applies to all airlines based in the territory and calls for civil, not criminal, proceedings would also apply “to sexual harassment that occurs on local ships or aircraft outside Hong Kong.”

The bill includes no language spelling out employers’ liability for customers sexually harassing flight attendants or other service workers, based on a legislative brief posted on the council’s website.

Never Easy

The amendment will probably become law by the end of March, Lee of the Legislative Council said.

Before writing the proposed law, legislators studied existing legislation in jurisdictions including Australia, Canada and New Zealand banning sexual harassment, according to an explanatory memo on the council’s website.

The amendment also expands the law to apply against acts that take place on board Hong Kong aircraft or ships outside the city.

Service workers and flight attendants may be discouraged from pursuing claims because defendants who are not residents of Hong Kong may be hard to reach or because the damages are small, said Susan C. Kendall, a Hong Kong-based partner at Baker & McKenzie.

“It’s never easy to issue proceedings against a foreign defendant,” said Kendall.

In-flight Incidents

In-flight passenger incidents worldwide from altercations to sexual harassment surged to about 8,000 last year, prompting the International Air Transport Association to call on governments and airports to penalize offenders.

“We support steps taken to protect airline staff, both in the air and on the ground, to ensure they are working in an environment that is free from abuse or other unacceptable behavior, including sexual harassment,” the airline group said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Airborne offenses from narcotics abuse to sexual harassment rose about 33 percent from the 6,000 reported for 2011, according to the aviation industry trade group. Confrontations jumped 16-fold in six years, after 500 incidents were reported in 2007, IATA data show.

Cathay’s flight attendants union agreed with the airline earlier this year over a compromise on required uniforms. Some employees had complained that the outfits were too revealing or too tight.

“After our feedback, Cathay is allowing us to choose our preferred size, like not so tight-fitting,” said Lai, who was a flight attendant for about three decades. “So far, we are fine with it. The problem seems to have been fixed.”

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