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Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

How ethnic minority workers are shunned in Hong Kong, and whether a new equality charter for companies will change this

  • First initiative of its kind in Hong Kong sees 20 major firms sign up
  • Surveys show South Asians are most disadvantaged in job search and salaries
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 9:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 10:30am

Balwinder Singh Brar remembers his early days at the finance company where he worked as an adviser.

Everyone in the office was Chinese, and he stood out not only as the only non-Chinese but also as a Sikh with a beard and long hair under his turban.

“They had no idea where I was from, why I looked like this,” he recalls.

But some of his more outgoing workmates eventually asked about his appearance. “They said they’d never met someone like me before, so they wanted to understand,” he says.

Singh, 24, who was born and raised in Hong Kong and speaks fluent Cantonese, was only too happy to tell others about his South Asian and Sikh background, and most of his colleagues quickly accepted him.

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His experience was largely positive, but many non-Chinese – and South Asians in particular – find it difficult to fit into the Hong Kong workplace because of a combination of cultural differences, language barriers and old-fashioned prejudice.

These are issues the city’s official equality body, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), aims to tackle head-on with a new employers’ charter that several major firms will sign on Thursday.

Raymond Ho, a senior officer at the commission, says: “With the charter, we want to shine a spotlight on racial diversity and inclusion in organisations. We feel it’s an area that does not get as much attention as other diversity issues.”

Twenty firms, including HSBC, AXA, Shun Tak and CLP, have so far confirmed they will sign the charter, the first initiative of its kind in Hong Kong.

It follows research which suggests that ethnic minorities, who make up 8 per cent of the population, face widespread employment challenges.

A study by the Catholic diocese of Hong Kong showed more than 67 per cent of South Asian respondents in the city found job-seeking to be “difficult” or “very difficult”.

A survey commissioned by the EOC found that 23 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “South Asians are not suitable to do office work because they have only attained low educational level.”

Ho says such statistics reflect prejudice and stereotyping that result in South Asians being “most at risk when it comes to discriminatory or exclusionary behaviour and policies”.

Census data from 2016 also indicated, among all ethnic groups in Hong Kong, South Asians are most likely to be affected by poverty, with a median monthly income of HK$12,500 (US$1,600) compared to HK$20,000 (US$2,500) across all ethnic minority groups.

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The employers’ charter comprises nine aims for employers. They range from establishing formal diversity policies in the workplace, to reviewing employment processes to ensure “absence of barriers for people of all races”, and putting into place a systematic grievance process to enable employees to report discrimination and harassment.

Some South Asians interviewed welcomed the charter.

“At my first job, people looked at me like I was from outer space,” says Jhanvi Hinduja, 39, a senior customer care associate, who arrived in Hong Kong from India 18 years ago.

At my first job, people looked at me like I was from outer space
Jhanvi Hinduja, customer care associate

She was the only Indian in that company, and felt unwelcome. “I had to leave after a couple of days because I was just not comfortable.”

Hinduja’s experience is familiar to Shahul Rahamathulla, 31, also a customer care associate from India. When he began looking for work in his 20s, he changed jobs a number of times initially.

“I couldn’t find any workplace that seemed to be inclusive,” he recalls, noting it was not necessarily active hostility that caused him to feel that way. “At a few companies, people simply avoided talking to me. That sort of thing disturbed me and led me to quit jobs.”

Such experiences, the EOC says, are indicative not of a diversity problem, but a lack of inclusivity which leaves non-Chinese staff feeling they are not part of the team at work.

Club Thapa, 28, a senior auditor at accounting firm Deloitte, arrived in Hong Kong from Nepal in 2000 with his parents and attended Delia Memorial School (Broadway) in Kowloon where almost all the students were South Asian.

“I had classmates who were so talented in music, sports and other subjects, but they knew they would be hindered because we didn’t study Chinese,” he says.

Many of his classmates resigned themselves to becoming construction workers, or getting low-paying jobs in restaurants.

Thapa himself left school in 2008 at 18 with low grades in his HKCEE exams. But after doing some part-time accounting work for the NGO Hong Kong Unison, discovered his flair for number crunching.

He joined the Community College of City University, earning himself an access degree, and then took a bachelor’s of business administration and accounting at the university. There, he was spotted by Deloitte and offered an internship.

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Ho says the employers’ charter aims to redress the problems ethnic minorities, particularly young people, have in finding jobs.

“We see better employment opportunities as critical to helping ethnic minorities escape inter-generational poverty,” Ho says.

He stresses, however, that the charter is about more than helping minorities find jobs.

“We don’t want employers to think that by committing to the charter they are committing to recruiting more ethnic minorities,” Ho explains. “We’re just calling for organisations to take a closer look at their employment policies to make sure there are no barriers that prevent racial minorities from getting work.”

We’re just calling for organisations to take a closer look at their employment policies
Raymond Ho, EOC senior officer

Singh says companies need to foster the inclusion of non-Chinese and Hong Kong companies can provide training to help staff understand other cultures better.

Outside work, he is an organiser for WeDo Global, a Hong Kong group that arranges events for people of different cultural backgrounds to interact.

He takes Hongkongers on tours of the Sikh temple in Wan Chai so they can learn about Sikh culture.

“There are people in Hong Kong who think all Indians and Pakistanis are bad, that they fight, they steal,” he says.

“They are surprised when they find out I can speak Cantonese. I tell them, ‘There’s no difference between me and you. Our skin colour might be different, but I was born in Hong Kong, I know all about Hong Kong culture. We’re the same.’”

Hinduja and Rahamathulla are now colleagues at insurance firm AXA, which will be signing the charter.

Hinduja, who joined the company three years ago and is a senior customer care associate, says: “It’s like my second home. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from. When I joined the firm, the treatment I got from managers and seniors put me in my comfort zone.”

Rahamathulla, who has been with the company just two months, believes this equal treatment stems from its multicultural make-up.

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“People here are of different faiths and different working experience,” he says. “People aren’t classified by their background.”

Sudesh Thevasenabathy, AXA’s head of customer care management, says: “A diverse and inclusive workforce is definitely more engaged and productive.”

AXA has introduced clear policies on fair hiring and against discrimination. “This creates a healthy and happy work environment where creativity and entrepreneurship flourish,” he says.

Cecilia So, human resources director for Deloitte China, which hired Club Thapa, says inclusion is a key part of the company’s corporate culture.

The company is not among those that have committed to signing the charter, but So says: “Diversity is Deloitte’s greatest strength, enabling us to put together people from different backgrounds, cultures and areas of expertise to help our clients solve their most complex problems.”