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Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Monetary Authority implements measures to improve ethnic minority access to basic financial services

Move in response to racial discrimination and cumbersome complaints process, causing people to not come forward to address their grievances

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 10:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 10:45pm

Concerns are growing that a “banking underclass” is emerging in Hong Kong due to the combined effects of racial discrimination and a system of redress so cumbersome that people have given up complaining.

In a move to address the problem – which has become increasingly difficult to quantify due to a falling number of formal complaints – the Hong Kong Monetary Authority has introduced a series of measures aimed at improving ethnic minority access to basic financial services which the rest of the population take for granted.

Both the authority – a de facto central bank for the city – and a respected ethnic minority advocacy group have urged people from the ethnic minority community, which numbers more than 350,000, not to lose faith in the complaints system.

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Last year, advocacy group Hong Kong Unison received just seven complaints about possible discrimination against ethnic minority people who tried to open a bank account or access financial services while Equal Opportunities Commission said it received only one such complaint under the Race Discrimination Ordinance. The monetary authority said their 2016 figure was zero.

The latest figures are in apparent contradiction to a study released by the equal opportunities watchdog in September last year, which found 33 per cent of non-white people of different ethnic backgrounds faced discrimination from financial services providers.

Kayla Tam, a campaign officer for Unison, said the group received many complaints unofficially, but most do not go through the complaints process because it can “take up to one year” to resolve.

Most would rather drop the issue, try to resolve the problem on their own, or try their luck at another bank. Tam said in order for discrimination to be tackled, people need to come forward.

“People might find the complaints process cumbersome, but they may not know there is a systemic problem of discrimination and don’t know they should take their complaints further,” she said.

The head of banking conduct at the monetary authority, Sarah Kwok, said to tackle the issue and determine whether a complaint warranted further action, people had to file a complaint.

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“From these complaints, we obtain useful insight and put out improvement measures based on concrete difficulties they are facing,” she said. “When we had sharing sessions with ethnic minority NGOs, we learnt that many people think that we require the complainants to go to the bank first ... we have clarified that it’s not necessary.”

The authority said it has taken multiple steps to tackle issues faced by ethnic minorities when dealing with banks.

A common problem, especially among students or fresh graduates, is providing proof of their address.

Commonly, a utility bill or mobile phone bill is given, but that may not be available. The authority took steps to ensure banks accept more samples of address proof, increasing the number to at least 14 different examples.

Kwok said the complaints form was simplified in May last year, and it now requires less personal information.

Measures to keep customers in the loop about their applications have also been strengthened.

“The customer won’t have the feeling [the application process] is like a black box,” Kwok added.