A public consultation has been launched on extending anti-discrimination laws to protect, among others, mainlanders, new migrants, and unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples.
The exercise, which will last three months, constitutes the first review of the anti-discrimination legislation since the passage of separate laws covering bias on the grounds of sex, family status, race and disability.
The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) would consider merging the four laws into one, and boosting protection for people who fell through the cracks of those laws, chairperson Dr York Chow Yat-ngok said.
"There is greater awareness of equality issues and higher expectations for equal rights," he said.
The law against sex discrimination does not cover bias on grounds of sexual orientation, while that against racial bias does not cover discrimination against people of one's own race - issues that have come under public scrutiny in the past year.
Chow stated firmly that same-sex marriage and sexual orientation were not part of the review. "If we have these in this consultation, nothing else will be discussed," he said.
A key topic is whether to legislate to protect against prejudice based on immigration and residency status, in the light of an anti-mainlander protest in February that was both applauded and condemned locally.
Also on the agenda is whether to widen the definition of marital status to include de facto relationships, known as civil unions or common-law partnerships in some countries.
"The starting point is to protect heterosexual de facto couples from discrimination," the commission's chief legal counsel, Herman Poon Lik-hang, said. "This could lead to entitlement to employment and health benefits" that could be extended to homosexual couples, he said. "We are open to opinions and ideas; we don't have a preconceived idea."
On racial bias, Chow pointed out that the the Race Discrimination Ordinance does not cover government bodies, unlike the three other laws. He said he hoped the review would tackle the issue.
Other aspects of the laws up for public input are whether to include a requirement to provide reasonable accommodation for the disabled, and a possible protection against sexual harassment in workplaces.
Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, a former legislator and chairwoman of the ethnic minority advocacy group Unison, urged the government to develop all aspects of equality.
"Back when we were drafting the Race Discrimination Ordinance, the government admitted there was discrimination against new immigrants in Hong Kong, but said it was not a race issue and therefore excluded it from the law. We were disappointed," said Ng, who led the group drafting the bill. "If we include it now, it needs to be for the right reasons - not just for the protection of mainland tourists; new immigrants should be the focus."
Hong Kong Autonomy Movement spokesman Vincent Lau cautioned that Hongkongers' freedom of speech could be limited, and that any amendment to protect those with different immigration or residency status would be an attempt to protect mainlanders.
Chow said the EOC would submit its report with recommendations to the government around the middle of next year.