Since Hong Kong has had a law against sexual harassment for two decades, one would assume all staff are legally safeguarded, and that there is an awareness of this insidious workplace offence. Regrettably we have some progress to make on both counts. The government is about to address one of them by introducing an amendment in the Legislative Council that will close a gap in the law. At the urging of the Equal Opportunities Commission, sexual harassment by customers of services and goods providers, from flight attendants to waiters, is to be made a civil offence, leaving offenders liable before a court for financial damages. The new law will even protect flight attendants on Hong Kong aircraft when they are outside the city. This follows an EOC survey that found that more than a quarter of flight attendants claimed to have been sexually harassed in the previous 12 months, and a call by cabin staff for Cathay Pacific to redesign their uniforms, which they said were too revealing and could provoke harassment.
The new law is welcome. Service providers may be expected to put up with a lot, such as rudeness, in the spirit of the motto "the customer is always right", but unwanted attention, to which they are also vulnerable, is unacceptable. The law needs to be supported by an education campaign that not only targets the public but reminds employers of their obligation to take complaints seriously, even though it means risking offence to the customer and unwelcome publicity.
There are grounds for concern about employer awareness. In another survey last year by the EOC, 6,000 companies were asked whether they had policies to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Only about 200 responded. Of the 113 that had policies, nearly half provided no details.
Sexual harassment strains workplace relations, and fear of reprisals may result in victims suffering in silence. Neither is good for staff morale. Low awareness by employers of workplace harassment is not in their own best interests. It is an area that warrants continued close attention from the EOC.