From the outset, the long-awaited Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) was expected to operate under constraints. It is in no position to fight against various forms of discrimination such as those based on age or race, simply because current legislation contains no safeguards against them. Yet, a year after its formal establishment, discontent is simmering over its performance, even within its limited ambit. A vital problem concerns its image, with unionists and human rights activists perceiving it as too weak an advocate for non-discrimination. They are right to have high expectations of a body with an annual budget of more than $60 million, backed by a sizeable team at the plush Convention Plaza office tower in Wan Chai. Critics believe the number of complaints lodged with the commission - just 52 since January - represents the tip of the iceberg. The public, meanwhile, seems to know little about the commission's duties and separate divisions. Larry Wang, an American-Chinese heading a local recruitment firm, admits to ignorance of its existence although it has a direct relation to his business. A couple of his clients indicated a preference for applicants of one gender rather than another to fill business-related posts around the time when the sex and disability discrimination ordinances came into effect last December. 'They were posts that required much time spent in China and entertainment with business clients there. The potential employers thought a male was more suitable,' said Mr Wang. It is questionable how relevant the concept of fair opportunity for all is at this stage. To be fair, the commission should not be held solely responsible if many employers are as yet unwilling to abandon employment biases. Changing long-held attitudes is bound to be a lengthy process. It is commendable that the EOC, headed by Dr Fanny Cheung Mui-ching, has made public education on equal rights a key part of its work. A string of seminars and exhibitions on gender and equality issues have been staged, and sexist job advertisements have disappeared from newspapers as a result of its work. Still, hamstrung by its low profile, the commission has garnered limited public support. And it has been the subject of attack from groups such as the Women's Coalition on Equal Opportunities, which expressed concern over what it saw as the body's tendency to present men as potential victims. Dr Cheung maintains that some concerned groups have yet to understand fully her commission's role and the details of existing legislation. She accuses the media of producing biased reports that undermined the commission's public standing. 'The equality issue has become politicised,' she said. Most people have yet to see her as a key campaigner for equality, and they regard her commission, if anything, as pro-Establishment. 'A number of victims refused to pass their cases to the EOC,' said Cheung Lai-ha, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. 'They were not sure what it could do for them. . . . People have the impression that it tends to dodge issues rather than taking a lead on things.' Ms Cheung cited the case of a woman employee in her late 40s who worked at a tailor's shop and was asked by her boss to take up cleaning duties. The woman, afraid a complaint might cost her her job, preferred to negotiate quietly with her boss rather than make her case known to the EOC, according to Ms Cheung. Certainly it will take time for the EOC's functions to become widely known, and doubts remain over its future direction. Should it be a powerful watchdog against discrimination or a laid-back, conciliatory body? 'It is more like a research institute to me,' says one constant critic, Democratic Party legislator John Tse Wing-ling. 'It has come up with posters and ads publicising its work and called on people to make complaints, but people do not necessarily change their practice even though they know it is wrong. The commission should take initiatives in monitoring the overall situation, including what is happening in the Government.' The bulk of the commission's work has instead been confined to handling complaints and staging promotional activities. Most of its seminars and workshops are attended largely by academics and professionals. Its latest survey on people's perception of, and attitudes towards, gender issues sheds little light on how widespread discrimination is in the territory. One is left to wonder how the commission plans to go about resolving specific, well-known issues such as the summary dismissal of pregnant workers. Another report, on the employment situation and social discrimination affecting the disabled, is expected by the end of the year. One hopes it will not be yet another academic exercise. Of the 52 complaints it has received, only two have been resolved. The rest are still being conciliated. No legal action has been taken against anyone for breaching the law. Dr Cheung stresses there will be no leaping into action until a full investigation and conciliation are complete. Many find this preference for conciliation frustrating, among them unionist Ms Cheung, who said: 'Some aggrieved parties are doubtful how helpful the commission can be to them should they decide to take a lawbreaker to court. There are no precedents available.' The commission has also failed to publicise the outcome of its work. Ms Cheung points out that the commission's popularity has suffered from its lack of transparency. Apart from raising its profile, a vital task for the commission is to initiate drives and act more like a social watchdog, as well as to accept complaints. As the chairman of Rehabilitation Alliance, Cheung Kin-fai, points out, not all victims are willing to come forward: 'Some are afraid of developing hostile relationships with people, like service providers, whom they run into constantly.' An existing practice ripe for the commission's attention, Mr Cheung said, is the fact that, in shopping arcades or other public venues, disabled toilets are commonly reserved or used as storage areas. Given the unexpected death of one commission member - the representative from the rehabilitation sector, Peter Chan Fuk-sing - in January, Mr Cheung also sees an urgent need to find a replacement from the same sector. Mr Tse, the legislator, voices yet another concern: 'Has it thought about the need to instil proper concepts in the school curriculum?' EOC boss Dr Cheung promises to demonstrate what the commission has achieved with a detailed exposition of resolved cases in the next issue of its newsletter, due in July. Let us hope that, with greater transparency, more people will begin to see this unprecedented and necessary body as a reliable force for change.