The hopes and fears for equality law

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2008, 12:00am

After a decade of wrangling, the racial discrimination bill has now passed - but the controversy surrounding it continues to rumble on.

While human rights and minority groups hail the legislation as a milestone for Hong Kong, many working in the private sector fear the law will stir up a hornet's nest.

Their worries stem from a vote in Legco on July 10. This removed a clause from the bill that would have given a wide range of public services and private businesses blanket protection from language-discrimination lawsuits.

Since then, private medical practitioners have expressed their fear of heavy fines if they fail to provide interpreters for patients from ethnic groups, and companies have voiced concerns over the cost of providing these language services.

Radio phone-in shows have also taken calls from taxi drivers, worried they will be in breach of the law if they cannot communicate with minority passengers.

But Mariana Law Po-chu, spokesperson for the Equal Opportunities Commission, in charge of implementing the law, thinks these anxieties are groundless.

'The spirit of the law has to do with raising awareness of racial discrimination and nurturing racial harmony, instead of furthering the racial divide,' said Ms Law.

'Some people fear Hong Kong will become a litigious society with the passing of the law. A Chinese-speaking food stall owner will not breach the law if he cannot communicate with minority customers in their languages.

'He could help them place orders with hand gestures. The law is only intended to stop discrimination on the grounds of race.'

Fermin Wong Wai-fun, executive director of Unison, a non-governmental organisation representing minority interests, said the law could make a big difference to the lives of ethnic minorities who live in Hong Kong.

'The lack of interpreter services in emergency rooms could be a matter of life and death. Instead of asking hospitals to have interpreters for all minority languages on standby around the clock, medical personnel could, for example, be given 3G mobiles to enable them to call a translation hotline for help,' said Ms Wong.

Despite the ongoing debate about the law's implications, some institutions are already taking steps to help minorities.

The Hospital Authority has announced it will begin providing translation services for patients before the end of the year.

RTHK's English-language channel, Radio 3, will be hosting two programmes targeted at ethnic minorities, broadcast in Urdu and Nepali, beginning this month.

These steps towards enhancing racial harmony are good news for 13-year-old Pakistani Bibi Satimah.

'I can speak Cantonese, English, Urdu and Hindu. If the government provides more training services for us, we could become interpreters one day and work in hospitals or other places to help ethnic minorities,' said the Yuen Long student.