1 in 4 flight attendants are harassed; culprits fly free

Sexual harassment of airline workers is rife, study finds, but there have been no prosecutions. A legal loophole protects passengers from censure

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 3:37am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 3:37am

More than a quarter of flight attendants - male and female - say they have been sexually harassed in the past 12 months, a survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission has found.

But there have been just two complaints about it to the commission since it was established in 1996, and no prosecutions.

"The worst [situation] would be flight attendants seeing sexual harassment as an inevitable part of their jobs, or that the situation is not changeable," said John Tse Wing-ling, convenor of the commission's policy and research committee, as the findings were released yesterday.

While harassment by passengers was much more prevalent than by workmates, a loophole in the Sex Discrimination Ordinance means that customers cannot be prosecuted.

Tse said an amendment to the ordinance to enable such prosecutions, first proposed in 1999, should finally be brought up for discussion this year and could be implemented soon.

Twenty-seven per cent of the 392 respondents said they had been sexually harassed in the past 12 months.

By gender, 17 per cent of male respondents and 29 per cent of women said they had experienced harassment.

Half said they had reported it.

Despite the small response rate of 4 per cent, Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union vice-chairwoman Vera Wu Yee-mei said the finding was close to reality, or if anything gave a conservative picture.

"The most common form would be physical sexual behaviour. But given the flight cabins' small and congested spaces, flight attendants often don't know if it was intentional or not," Wu said.

"Younger and newer colleagues experience sexual harassment more. Many don't report it probably because they don't know if there would be any point."

Seventy per cent of respondents described training on how to handle sexual harassment as insufficient.

Wu said Cathay had an online course on the topic but no practical training.

Calvin Chan from the British Airways Hong Kong International Cabin Crew Association said their company had also offered only an online course, which was not adequate.

"In these cases, more is always better. Better policies are good for everyone," said Narayanan Nakulan of United Airlines, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Tse said it was important for companies to know that they were also liable for prosecution.

Company culture had to change to make flight attendants feel more comfortable about reporting such cases and to show no tolerance of any form of sexual harassment in the workplace, he said.

The ordinance defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that would make the victim feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, or any conduct creating a sexually hostile work environment, such as displaying pornographic materials or telling sexual jokes in the workplace.