Under the UN's sceptical eye

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2006, 12:00am

Are Hong Kong and Beijing making progress in eliminating discrimination against women? Both governments' records will be under scrutiny in New York in August, at hearings of the United Nations committee that oversees the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw).

Several human rights groups - including the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) - discussed Hong Kong's upcoming Cedaw report at the Legislative Council's home affairs panel on June 9.

The UN's Cedaw committee has demanded action in the area of women's employment, among other issues, in Hong Kong. In February, it asked the government to provide the results of a 2001 government-funded study on equal pay for work of equal value in both public and private sectors. While there is no equal-pay legislation in Hong Kong, the government is bound by a number of international human-rights agreements to implement that principle. But instead of making it mandatory through legislation, the administration decided to take a persuasive approach.

In January 2001, the EOC was given $2 million to study the principle. A taskforce was set up to oversee the consultancy study, then it was given a draft report early in 2003. But its members could not reach a consensus, and that state of gridlock has dragged on ever since.

At the same time, there were three changes of chairmen at the EOC in less than two years. The capable and energetic Anna Wu Hung-yuk was forced out in mid-2003. She was followed by retired Court of Appeal judge Michael Wong Kin-chow, who served briefly before resigning in disgrace.

Mr Wong was succeeded by Patricia Chu Yeung Pak-yu, a retired senior civil servant. She lasted for about a year and was succeeded by the privacy commissioner, Raymond Tang Yee-bong, who accepted the job on condition that he could serve a five-year term.

These inept appointments have seriously undermined the EOC's effectiveness and credibility. So it appears the issue of equal pay for work of equal value will wither away. This is regrettable, because the community has been waiting for the study result, and for action to bring equality for women.

Another area where the administration has been procrastinating is in amendments to the Sex Discrimination Ordinance. In 1999, the EOC completed a review of the ordinance and proposed 14 amendments, including the extension of provisions against sexual harassment.

In 2004, the administration told the UN Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights that it had accepted many of those proposed amendments, and would incorporate some into legislation against racial discrimination. However, the race bill has repeatedly been delayed. That is inexcusable, and shows that the administration is bowing to certain intransigent forces, including some in the business community.

Because Hong Kong is a party to many UN covenants, it has to submit periodic reports to committees and attend hearings. This provides an opportunity for our non-governmental organisations to participate and to call the administration to account. Hongkongers must stand up for their rights. They should articulate their concerns here, as well as at the UN.

Emily Lau Wai-hing is a legislative councillor for The Frontier