Discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers in Hong Kong ‘worse than figures show’

Advocates say that pregnancy discrimination is far more serious than official figures indicate and they are calling for joint parental leave

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2016, 11:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2016, 7:33pm

Josephine Kuok was fired on the first day that she returned to work after her 10-week maternity leave. It took only ten minutes. “They had found a man to do my job,” she said.

Kuok, 37, is one of hundreds of women who have filed complaints at the Equal Opportunities Commission in the past years. She also sued her employer in the Labour Court and received compensation in February this year for illegitimate termination of contract.

The EOC received 1,435 complaints under the Sexual Discrimination Ordinance over the past six years. Among them, 602 women complained of pregnancy discrimination — some 40 per cent of the claimants.

But, according to advocates, the issue is much more serious than the official figures portray as many women, unlike Kuok, shy away from speaking out. Advocates blame the government for having traditional policies in place and they call for joint parental leave.

One in five pregnant women and new mothers experience workplace discrimination in Hong Kong

Although the numbers have slightly dropped in the past year - there were 65 complaints in 2015 compared to 83 in 2014 - Puja Kapai, a former barrister at the High Court and law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said that official figures do not provide a full picture.

She also noted that the EOC procedures are based in conciliation first and that the imbalance of power between companies and workers “is very stark” at times. And when conciliation fails, the EOC is “very conservative in terms of which cases should go further”, Kapai said. From 2010 to 2015, the EOC received 47 legal assistance applications related to pregnancy discrimination, but only 20 were granted.

The director of Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association, Wu Mei-lin, said that the EOC procedures are quite bureaucratic. “Many end up giving up because they don’t want to harm their babies.”

Wu said that some women are discriminated against after they return from their maternity leave, like Kuok was.

Kuok, a mother-of-two, was told that she was going to be fired because she would not be able to handle new projects. “In March 2015, I sued my former employer ... we went to the Labour Tribunal more than 10 times. I was really suffering,” she recalled. “I had no money to get a lawyer, I only could ask friends or search on the internet about the rules.”

Kuok, who worked in the human resources department of an auto-supply company, ended up winning the case and received as a compensation the equivalent to two months of salary. She said she hoped that her story could encourage other women. “They should face the problem, be brave and fight for their rights,” she said.

Avocate Wu said maternity leave should be extended and fully paid – currently women receive four-fifths of their salary.

The city’s maternity leave lags behind the 14 weeks minimum proposed by the International Labour Organisation, and fathers are only entitled to three days off.

Scholar Kapai suggested joint parental leave, which would allow parents to share leave and decide how to distribute it for a year after a child is born. Such an approach has been adopted by countries like the UK, where parents can take a total of 52 weeks off work after having a baby or adopting.

Chief executive of The Women’s Foundation, Su-Mei Thompson, supported the idea.

Some companies in the city have claimed that employers take advantage of the maternity leave and others say that they can’t afford it. Thompson said the government must promote the advantages of providing maternity protection and of having a gender-balanced workforce .

Last year, more than 60 per cent of the city’s married couples had only one child or none.

Wu said that family-friendly policies should be introduced, namely standard working hours as well as enhanced child care services.

Kapai said: “If employers fail to calculate the costs of not providing support to women with families, those costs will be absorbed by the society.”