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Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC)

Trouble at top of Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission as senior staff quit, sparking fears about performance and diversity

Three experienced officers handling applications for help from Hongkongers leave the equality watchdog within six months, raising fears about the body’s efficacy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2018, 3:24pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2018, 10:22pm

Renewed concern has arisen about the capability of Hong Kong’s equality watchdog after it emerged that three senior staff overseeing its complaint services department had left within six months.

The division’s director departed the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in December, and two chief officers quit earlier this year, with one said to have been sacked last month, the Post has learned.

According to sources, a fourth officer, also of senior rank, stepped down after being offered a contract shorter than the usual three-year term.

The departures were seen by some as fallout from a complaint the division lodged against EOC chairman Alfred Chan Cheung-ming about his leadership style.

Lawmakers and activists meanwhile feared the loss of such high-ranking experienced officers would compromise the watchdog’s operations.

“Handling complaints about discrimination – a core function of the EOC – relies on the professional knowledge of the team of case officers, and experience and knowledge of human rights and anti-discrimination matters are indispensable,” Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok said.

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Two of the officers who left had been with the watchdog for about two decades, he said.

Kwok, a barrister by trade, expressed concern over how the watchdog’s management may have handled the reasons for the departures, and asked whether sufficient measures had been taken to mitigate the damage to complaint handling procedures.

The loss of staff is not the first time EOC management has come under fire since Chan took the helm two years ago.

At a panel meeting at Hong Kong’s legislature in February, Chan was accused by lawmakers of cronyism over his decision to hire John Leung Chi-fai, a former government official with no experience in legal or anti-discrimination work, to lead a review of the body’s operations.

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Legislators also slammed the EOC’s “unproductive” legal team after it emerged that eight in-house lawyers only processed 47 applications for legal assistance last year and offered help in just 26 cases.

Sources said the chief officer allegedly sacked was Lam Siu-wai, a seasoned employee whose performance had been lauded by human rights advocates.

Phyllis Cheung Fung-mei, executive director of Hong Kong Unison, which serves the needs of ethnic minorities in the city, said Lam was very familiar with discrimination law.

“She was the supervisor in a number of cases we lodged and was very experienced,” Cheung said. “Sometimes, even if the commission could not proceed with our complaints, she would explain clearly to us that it was due to flaws in the Race Discrimination Ordinance.”

Cheung lamented that the commission had once named Leung, who had no experience with human rights cases, as an acting chief officer, and said Lam’s abrupt departure would further erode the division’s efficiency.

Lam had been conducting internal training for colleagues, Cheung said, and the departure of such senior staff could not easily be made up for with new hires.

Veteran Labour Party politician Lee Cheuk-yan, a spokesman for the Equal Opportunity Action Coalition, accused EOC management of turning the watchdog into a “men’s club” as most of the remaining senior management were male.

Three of the departed officers were women, a source said.

It was also understood that three male officers had been appointed to cover the duties of those who left.

An EOC spokesman confirmed three senior staff members had parted ways with the body, but refused to say whether they were fired or left of their own accord, citing privacy concerns. Recruitment procedures to replace the two chief officers were under way, he said.

The commission also refused to confirm whether the trio had lodged a complaint against the chairman.

“To ensure that morale and efficiency can be maintained, the EOC is determined to attend to and resolve all employee grievances in a fair and timely manner,” the spokesman said.

“Any grievances against the chairperson will be directed to the administration and finance committee.”