It was no surprise that Carol Ng Man-yee was feeling emotional as she hobbled her way into the Hong Kong Labour Tribunal in April 2004 to confront British Airways for the first time over a dispute on wages. Not only was her baby boy due in a week’s time, she was also grieving the loss of her father, who had died six months earlier. “I could only hold back my tears to do what I should do. My father loved me very much and he was my spiritual pillar. I had never felt such pain in my entire life. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep. It was a tough time,” the BA Hong Kong International Cabin Crew Association chairwoman says. Union demands face-to-face meeting with top Hong Kong aviation official over security Heavily pregnant, she summoned her inner strength and entered the tribunal, scoring the association’s first victory in just two days over a dispute that stemmed from the airline’s decision to cut one-third of Hong Kong cabin crew’s 13th-month salary. Little did she expect that the case would be the first of many tug-of-wars with the airline in the years to come. In 2007 her association even took the airline to court in the United Kingdom for race and age discrimination. At the time, UK-based crew could retire at 55 years old while those based outside of the country, including the crew in Hong Kong, had to retire at 45. After several years in the courts, the association eventually won. It was due to Ng’s efforts that the retirement age for foreign crews from 10 overseas bases has since been extended to 65. Fast-forward to November 2015 when the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation, an umbrella group of British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Dragonair cabin crew unions, was formed. Unsurprisingly, Ng became the federation’s general secretary. Last month the federation organised its first major protest, taking on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying over the handling of a piece of left luggage belonging to his younger daughter, Leung Chung-yan. About 2,500 people showed up – a turnout that both shocked and encouraged the federation’s first leader. From the day she joined the aviation industry to becoming leader of the city’s largest cabin crew union, Ng tells the Post of the ups and downs she has been through. Q: How did you become a flight attendant? After I graduated from secondary school, I got a job at Hang Seng Bank as a receptionist. It was a very boring job but it was a big company and so there was a lot to learn. Two years later, some of my colleagues left for Jardine Aviation Services. They said the company was always hiring, and that it was a fun job because you could help travellers check-in at the airport. I was excited once I heard that it was fun. I was also curious and so I applied for the job. But then another friend of mine suggested that I could apply for Cathay Pacific as well because the interview place was just opposite to where I took the Jardine interview. Cathay told me that I could start working for them immediately that day. I asked, didn’t I have to wait for them to process my application? They said there wasn’t such a need because they really needed manpower. I then called Jardine and said I was sorry, I got another job. I worked in Cathay for a few years as ground staff. Q: How did you end up with British Airways? It was at the end of 1991 when a friend said that British Airways was hiring. I applied for the job and received a letter after the second round of interview. The letter said that the training session was already full, meaning I was rejected. I tore the letter apart and threw it away. But then I received a call from British Airways, telling me to get a body check. Why did I need a body check when I was not even hired? The caller said there was a change of plan. For a moment I wondered if it was a scam. But then I went to the address I was given, and it was actually a clinic. I was then told to pack up for a six-week training in the UK. I had never left Hong Kong for so long and I did not know what a flight attendant needed to do. Q: What led to the formation of your union? My first eight to 10 years at the airline was like a dream. I was having fun and learning new things every day. But then I started to realise that there was a difference between how the airline treated the Hong Kong crew and the other crew. After the September 11 attacks in 2001 in the US, for three months there were only a few dozen passengers on each flight. We knew that something could happen to our jobs. The airline management had a meeting with us and said they did not want to fire people. They said they came up with a plan that we definitely would like. Under the plan, the base salary would be cut by half. But we would be taking four weeks off unpaid after working every four weeks. More than 10 people raised their hand in support, but the rest of the 90 people did not accept it. We started to ask ourselves, why were we always in a take-it-or-leave-it situation? Why couldn’t we have a union? Three to four weeks later, after realising that many staff had refused to accept the proposal, the airline came up with another plan. Under that plan, we would get four unpaid days off a month but that would also mean our base salary needed to come down by 15 per cent. And then there was the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. The management came to us again and said they wanted to give us seven unpaid days off in a month. That meant our base salary had to go down by 25 per cent. It lasted two and a half years. We started to ask ourselves, why were we always in a take-it-or-leave-it situation? Why couldn’t we have a union? At around that time, the airline cut our 13th-month salary by a third. Some colleagues were also reaching the age of 45 and so they were about to retire. We told ourselves that enough was enough. That was how the union was formed. Q: What was the impact of the union taking the airline to the Labour Tribunal in Hong Kong? I was pregnant when the union took the airline to the Labour Tribunal in Hong Kong over the 13th-month salary. My father had also passed away not long ago. When the case began in the tribunal, my child was due in a week’s time. Eventually, we won in just two days. The case sent a message that we had formed a union and so would not be bullied anymore. But then the airline started picking on me, telling me that I as an airline employee could not talk to the media. Q: What led to the union taking British Airways to court in the UK over the retirement age dispute? There was a time when the general secretary of Unite, which was a big UK union, was in Hong Kong. We had a meeting and I was told that the union would help us. I told the union that we did not have much money and they said they would pay for us. It was 2007 when we sued the airline for race and age discrimination because the British cabin crew could retire at 55 while we needed to retire at 45. The retirement age for the British crew went up to 65 in the same year because of amendments in local law. But we needed to fight for an extension ourselves. A friend of mine from Unite called me and told me that BA had conceded the case. I immediately cried out loud I was in fact fighting for 1,000 crew members from 10 overseas bases. We won in the Employment Tribunal, and the airline took the case to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and then all the way to the High Court. The airline’s argument was that our employment could not be considered British employment. The airline also said that no European Unions directives require EU member states to protect non-EU people. I remember clearly a judge scolded the airline’s lawyers when he came in. The judge asked ‘are you telling me that these girls are not British, and so you can discriminate against them?’ Some time later, a friend of mine from Unite called me and told me that BA had conceded the case. I immediately cried out loud. Q: What motivated you to stay on as union chairwoman all these years? If you are only willing to sit back and complain the whole time about the lack of collective bargaining, standard working hours and minimum wage, nothing will be achieved. I don’t want myself and the next generation to suffer. What can I do then? I will have to join the fight myself. Q: What led to the establishment of the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation? The Hong Kong Flight Attendants Alliance was formed in around 2005 or 2006. It was formed because the cabin crew unions from British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Dragonair felt that the retirement ages at the three airlines were strange. But the alliance was not a registered trade union. It was merely a platform. Why can’t there be a union that represents the entire sector? That was how the federation was formed, representing about 10,000 cabin crew members. It was registered in November last year. The retirement age for Cathay’s cabin crew is now 55. It is 45 for those at Dragonair, but they can then become flight attendants on a contract basis until they turn 55. It is 65 for British Airways. Q: What was your expectation of the protest at the airport over the left luggage incident? I was expecting only 400 to 500 people. I did not expect 2,500 to show up. When it started at 3.30pm, some people were shy about going in and would only stand outside. But very soon the whole area was packed. The severity of the incident was very complex. When Dora Lai Yuk-sim of the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union told me about it, I thought it was just a case of power abuse. It turned out to be about the whole system at the airport.