The chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission has spent a lifetime in difficult situations THE EARLY DAYS of Patricia Chu Yeung Pak-yu's career were spent with light-fingered delinquents who played hookey and dabbled in drugs. The most recent chapter of her career may be more difficult. Late last year she took the helm - by choice - of an anti-bias body that had become unhinged by internal bickering, political attacks and public scandal. Her job title may have changed, but rebellion and bedlam seem to be a constant theme in Ms Chu's vocation. Eleven months ago, the social-welfare veteran became the chairwoman of Hong Kong's Equal Opportunities Commission, the anti-discrimination watchdog that went from dogged crusader under the watch of Anna Wu Hung-yuk to a state of disarray after the controversial appointment of ex-judge Michael Wong Kin-chow. A decision by Mr Wong to sack top official Patrick Yu before he even started working was followed by allegations that Mr Wong had accepted gifts from a tycoon while he was a judge. Following Mr Wong's resignation, Ms Chu, a member of the body for just three months, was offered the top post last December. Her appointment generated more controversy at the embattled watchdog. As a former civil servant, her appointment was seen by many as an attempt to tame the anti-bias organisation that had on several occasions successfully taken the government to task over discriminatory practices. Given the media attention and public scepticism, Ms Chu was apprehensive about taking up the post, with its mere one-year contract. Soon after she took the helm, however, the EOC's workload increased and its budget was cut. In February, it was announced that funding for the EOC would drop by more than 13 per cent over the next three years, despite a 31 per cent surge in the number of inquiries and complaints it received last year. This year its budget was $77 million. Two years ago it was $85 million. The cuts, however, extended to all statutory bodies, Ms Chu points out. 'It's really a downward adjustment because of the approach they [the government] have now. They are not particularly cutting the budget of the EOC.' Ms Chu is quick to challenge several perceptions about her organisation. The fact that the EOC is funded by the government does not mean that it is afraid of taking it on, she insists. 'There may be a perception that because we are getting money from government we have to be compliant ... it doesn't mean because of that we have to be afraid of government,' she says. Moreover, she sees her background in the civil service as something that helps her rather than hinders her when dealing with the government. 'I hope there should not be this perception [that she is protective of the government] because I was a civil servant in the past.' Having been a civil servant 'may be an advantage because I know how the government is run, who to talk to if necessary, how to have a good dialogue with them', she explains. Despite high-profile institutional discrimination cases - such as a gender-bias case in the school allocation system that was successfully challenged by the EOC - cases involving the government are a minority, she says. Most bias complaints come from the private sector. Where sex discrimination is alleged, it is likely to fall into two categories: pregnancy-related dismissals and harassment. Ms Chu's believes that sex discrimination 'relates to a lot of things'. 'If the economy is bad, perhaps [companies] don't understand the law and don't respect it,' she says. Companies need to be educated about the laws against discrimination and the fact that they must adhere to the laws, Ms Chu says. Large corporations are ahead of smaller firms in addressing anti-bias issues. Only the multinationals have enshrined basic anti-bias principles into their policies. A survey by the Women's Commission in 2002 found that barely one-third of companies in Hong Kong had adopted any gender-related employment practices. The multinationals, for the most part, learned about sex bias the hard way - through million-dollar lawsuits. In Hong Kong, the courts are a tool of last resort for the EOC. It prefers to settle a complaint through conciliation. If that doesn't work it may take the issue to court. The EOC takes a case to court when it wants to set a precedent or shape policy, Ms Chu says. 'Every case we bring to court is important; it sets a precedent.' The number of cases taken to court is 'really not a lot', Ms Chu admits, and when complainants apply for legal assistance, she admits: 'It's not always given.' Even those cases that go to the writ stage are usually settled before they reach the courts. Most of the work done by the EOC is done behind closed doors. It generates little publicity and, therefore, not much proof about the effectiveness of its sanctions or its ability to make violators pay. Some critics of the body say that without publicity the EOC fails to create a deterrent. 'With a case that goes to court, there's a lot of publicity,' admits Ms Chu. But she asks: 'How many cases do you think it's necessary to make them [employers] aware?' 'If a case deserves to be brought to court, we will bring it to court.' There have been cases in Hong Kong involving high payouts, Ms Chu says. 'Unfortunately for some of the settlement cases the amount is very substantial, but because of a confidentiality clause we can't go to the public to say it involves a lot of money.' None of these cases have, however, related to pay. Not a single case of wage discrimination has been brought before the EOC. Ms Chu has no explanation. 'I really don't know. It's a subject that needs to be looked into.' Other jurisdictions, however, have been flooded with complaints from women who allege they are being paid less than male colleagues for the same job. Moreover, the concept of 'work of equal value' has also taken hold. It has sparked analysis of gender segregation in professions rather than just pay scales. In Canada for example, job audits have been carried out to compare professions on the basis of skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions. Ensuring equal pay for work of equal value is not an easy thing to do, nor does it come cheap. 'One of the difficulties is you need some sort of measurement that is recognised by every party,' Ms Chu stresses. 'So at the moment, there's no such measurement to recognise [equal work] that can be used here.' Ms Chu said she had not been discriminated against in any way during her years in the civil service. 'I haven't come across any discrimination,' she says, lauding the efforts of senior colleagues - such as former chief administration secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang - who lobbied successfully for equal pay in the civil service. 'I think my predecessors did a lot to lobby for equal pay ... I have been actively involved in the senior female officers association. We say we will continue to be a watchdog on the government.' That is not to say her career has never brought her face to face with sex bias. From her time as a probation officer to her work as a social worker, Ms Chu has been on the front line of social and gender issues - from domestic violence to child abuse. To be effective, however, she finds it necessary to remain detached. 'You don't get emotionally involved,' Ms Chu says. And money is not the answer to social inequality, she stresses. 'It's not just dishing out money to them, dishing out services. Our philosophy has been to empower.' Biography Since last December Patricia Chu Yeung Pak-yu has been chairwoman of Hong Kong's anti-discrimination watchdog, the Equal Opportunities Commission. She began her career more than 34 years ago as a probation officer. Ms Chu subsequently became a social worker and rose through the ranks of the civil service to the post of deputy director of social welfare before retiring from the civil service in 2002.