by Rachel Law
Hong Kong is known for its cultural fusion of the East and West, its rule of law and for the guarantee of civil liberties that its citizens take pride in. Despite this reputation, a portion of the population has been marginalized to the extent that their human rights are at risk of being violated.
Ethnic minorities (EM) in Hong Kong constitute around 6% of the total population, with a large majority consisting of second-generation immigrants from South or Southeast Asia (HKSAR, Unison Limited). Despite their ties to the city extending back to the colonial period, EMs rarely enjoy the same rights granted to their Chinese counterparts (Unison Limited). Under the provisions of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), EMs are guaranteed fundamental rights such as the right to equal work, equal pay and the right to education. This article will identify and discuss the three most prominent violations of these rights: racial harassment, treatment in employment, and education opportunities.
While EMs in Hong Kong are seldom faced with physically aggressive racial discrimination, they occasionally experience verbal harassment in the form of racial slurs. For instance, people of South Asian heritage are mockingly called ‘Ah-Cha’ because of their accent (Unison Limited). A study conducted by the Hong Kong Society for Community Organization, a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on human rights advocacy, reveals that 82% of EM respondents claimed to have suffered from racial discrimination in daily life, such as people refusing to share a table in restaurants with them (Society for Community Organization; Chan).
The prejudicial treatment of EMs based on their race, and “misplaced assumptions and stereotypes based on some immutable trait or characteristic” is a clear infringement of the UDHR, which states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and “everyone is entitled to all the rights set forth in [the] Declaration, without distinction of any kind” (Article 1, 2 UDHR, Kapai).
There currently exists legislation in Hong Kong against the use of racial slurs and hate speech, such as the Racial Discrimination Ordinance introduced in 2008. However, due to their lack of exposure to relevant legislation and the set of rights they are entitled to, ambiguous wording of legislation that leads to ineffective implementation, and the subtle nature of these incidents of discrimination, EMs are still dealing with racial prejudice on a daily basis, especially in terms of employment and education.
Employment opportunities are traditionally limited for EMs in Hong Kong due to language barriers and prejudices against their race. Multiple reports have shown that more than 32% of EMs “have been rejected for employment or interview because of their race or based on some bad excuses” (SCO, Chan, 2001). EMs are also often faced with outright racial discrimination in instances where written Chinese skills are deemed required even when “excellent skills in writing and reading Chinese might not be a necessary criterion for the position” (Kapai). In year 2013, 18% of EMs citing the unreasonable language requirements as reason for their rejection, prompting the United Nations Human Rights Committee to express concern over “non-Chinese immigrants [facing] discrimination and prejudice in employment due to the requirement of written Chinese language skills, even for manual jobs” (Kapai, Coalition for Racial Equality).
Meanwhile, EMs who are employed are often treated unequally to Chinese employees. A survey done by the Coalition for Racial Equality of Hong Kong Human Rights Commission shows that EMs receive much lower salaries but have longer working hours than Chinese employees on the same job level (Coalition).
The lack of opportunities and unfair treatment are violations of Article 23 of the UDHR, which stipulates everyone’s right to work, just and favorable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, and more specifically, everyone’s right to equal pay for equal work without any discrimination (UDHR). Despite existing legislation against discrimination, the implementation of these laws in the workplace is often restricted by the less standardized nature of manual, seasonal, or part-time jobs, and the occasional lack of official contracts, hindering the improvement of EMs’ working conditions.
Children of non-Chinese descent do not fare any better because their education is severely hampered by a system that discriminates based on race. Firstly, educational resources allocated for ethnic minorities are scarce, given that out of 5,300 EM children aged five to fourteen, only 3,069 are enrolled in the seven schools accepting EMs in Hong Kong, out of which more than 20% have to wait for at least half a year before getting placed (Chan). As for children aged fifteen to nineteen, the Youth Pre-vocational Training Program “has totally ignored the ethnic minorities” (Coalition). Secondly, channels through which EMs can get in touch with schools or seek help are inadequate, with 23.6% of EM respondents claiming that they do not know where to find such a channel, forcing many of them to run their own schools without proper guidance (Chan).
Beyond race, children of refugee parents are faced with the challenge of enrolling in schools while overcoming the challenges posed by a lack of identity documents (Kapai). This reveals that continuous violations of the right to education must be addressed, not only by school authorities, but also the Hong Kong government. However, so far the government has done little to alleviate the inequality in education.
As for EM children already in school, some argue that the recent introduction of the School Uniform Guide by the Equal Opportunities Commission might be impeding their religious rights and freedoms. The School Uniform Guide, which proposes a uniform code across schools in Hong Kong, recognizes that “some cultures and religions require conformity with specific dress codes…[which] may deviate from the school’s uniform code” (Kaipai). However, it puts greater emphasis on balancing these religious rights with the need to contribute to “school identity and solidarity” (Kapai). Some have welcomed the School Uniform Guide for taking into account the cultural and racial differences within the student body, but others have criticized its vague wording and guidelines, as well as the insufficient “consultation with schools and concern groups representing key stakeholders affected” (Kapai).
These concerns not only urge the Government to adhere to Article 26 of the UDHR, which highlights the role of education in promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, but also reflects “a desire among the ethnic minority community to be heard on these issues since they impact them directly” (UDHR, Kapai).
There are various policies that the Hong Kong Government can adopt to assist and integrate ethnic minorities in Hong Kong by paying closer attention to EMs’ needs and by understanding the challenges they face from their perspective as a minority in a largely homogenous society. Being more empathetic on the government’s part means much more than just having the Equal Opportunities Commission – it means having the genuine willingness to work with NGOs, inviting diverse voices to the conversation, educating the public on acceptance, and prioritizing the need to address ethnic inequality in its policymaking.
The Government’s increasing effort and the general public’s growing attention to the protection of ethnic minorities’ rights in the recent decade is heartening to see, but for Hong Kong to truly be a society of equality, the government and the population need to make a deliberate effort to protect the core values of fairness and justice in all aspects of the society, so that all members can have equal access to the results of their hard work.