Towngas did a rapid U-turn yesterday on collecting staff signatures against the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement.
Hours after staff reported department heads had distributed petition forms drawn up by the anti-Occupy group Alliance for Peace and Democracy to employees, the company said it had decided not to collect them.
This came after employees accused the public utility company of exerting undue pressure on them to sign the forms.
The pro-Beijing group wants to collect 800,000 signatures to outnumber the 787,000 people who voted in Occupy Central's unofficial referendum on electoral reform last month. Some mainland-owned firms and pro-Beijing groups have encouraged staff to sign the petition.
An employee who works at the Towngas head office in Quarry Bay said: "When other colleagues asked what would happen if we didn't submit the form, our superior only said we 'think too much'. I didn't think this would happen to me since I don't work for a mainland-owned company."
The employee said some colleagues protested by writing slogans in support of Occupy when submitting their forms unsigned.
"The department head later said it was not essential to return the form. Perhaps they changed their mind after the news was leaked to the media," the employee said.
It was reported that employees who received the forms in the morning were told to return them to their bosses by Friday.
A Towngas spokeswoman said the company had decided not to collect the forms on the alliance's behalf "to soothe employees' concerns".
"It [distributing the forms] was only meant to provide convenience to our staff," she said when asked why the company had decided to distribute messages of a political nature to staff. She added that the alliance had approached the company about distributing the petition. However, Alliance spokesman Ng Chau-pei said it had not approached any firm directly, but hoped to get permission to set up booths in shopping malls to solicit signatures.
"Many groups and companies have approached us … some [companies] are perhaps more active, but we would not influence how others run their companies," Ng aid.
Occupy Central co-organiser Dr Chan Kin-man said no employees of a company should feel pressured to take a stance on a political issue. "It is unavoidable that the public will think the company has a political stance since they are only doing this for one side," he said.
Henderson Land, which owns a controlling stake in Towngas, said it had yet to decide whether to support the alliance's petition.
A Henderson spokeswoman said the company opposed Occupy Central because its plans to shut down the business district "would harm the city's stability and prosperity".
Two other public utilities, HK Electric and CLP Power, said they had no plans to allow the petition drive on their premises.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to free up manpower to handle "mass public order events", a police source said the force was exploring hiring officers who had retired over the past two years part-time to provide logistical support. Such a move would be unprecedented, the source said.