EOC proposes law reform: Cohabiting relationships and new immigrants the talking points

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York Chow’s final call as chairman of the EOC seeks to better protect the rights of minority groups. As comprehensive as the report is, it doesn’t reflect the outgoing chairman’s enthusiasm for promoting legal recognition of same-sex marriage.


The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has unveiled its third and most comprehensive review of the four existing anti-discrimination ordinances alongside a total of 73 recommendations to the administration.

“[The recommendations] seek to close gaps in existing protections, encourage institutional changes, and steps to address lingering systemic inequalities and facilitate more effective application of the anti-discrimination ordinances,” the outgoing chairman, York Chow, said. The report divides recommendations into high priority to implement, high priority to further study and ‘other’.

Among the 73 recommendations, the EOC identified 27 issues as higher priority areas for legislative or related reforms. These included providing reasonable accommodation for people with disability; protection of female employees from being dismissed after returning for reasons related to childbirth  or from discrimination for breastfeeding; and introducing extension of the Racial Discrimination Ordinance to cover all government functions.


Unreasonable gap

Matters concerning new immigrants and family status discrimination, in particular, were big talking points for the consultation. The EOC was proposing the Government to further look into protection from discrimination on grounds of nationality and residency, which ultimately touched upon the sensitive issue of new immigrants from the mainland. The commission’s Legal Counsel, Peter Reading, noted that a large number of individual responses were against this particular item with what the commission calls ‘template responses’ (i.e. form letters). Mr Reading expressed concerns that such responses contained less reasoning and justification and reduced the consultation into a mere opinion poll.

“There is substantial evidence that they are discriminated in some circumstances such as work being paid less or they may be refused services or not provided the same level of services,” Mr Reading said, stressing that introducing proper protection does not mean equal social benefit provision for all. “An important principle…is that everyone in Hong Kong, no matter what their race is, whether they are from mainland [China] or wherever, should be protected from racial discrimination. Otherwise there will be a gap in the RDO which would be unreasonable.”

Another issue which also received immense public attention were recommendations to consult on introducing legislation to protect couples in cohabiting relationships who are not married from discrimination on the grounds of marital status under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, and family status under the Family Status Discrimination Ordinance over caring for immediate family members.

The Government is urged to revise discriminatory policies against persons in cohabiting relationships, such as on taxation payments and immigration rights, and to consider the possible different methods of recognising such relationships, be it heterosexual or homosexual.

While the commission made it clear that the provision is not directly calling for the recognition of same-sex marriage but rather to address a change in demographics that there are now more unmarried couples, irrespective of the sexual-orientation of that relationships, concerns remain among religious groups in particular.


Leaving notes

As the commissioner steps down at the end of March, LGBTI-rights advocates as the next head, have concerns the new chief, Alfred Chan Cheung-ming, is less enthusiastic over the EOC’s commitment to propagating LGBTI anti-discrimination legislation.

Dr Chow dismissed the suspicions, saying that the current Elderly Commission chairman is an “appropriate candidate” and that the commission’s direction will not change under new leadership [Ed note: He did later say Chan had misstated that sexual minorities are protected under the existing ordinance]. The outgoing commissioner did make his last call for the legislation, stressing that Hong Kong had fallen behind not just the western countries but some Asian jurisdictions such as Macau, Taiwan and Thailand over protection against discrimination on the ground of one’s sexual-orientation.

Responding to questions over his future plans, the former Secretary for Food and Health said he does not have to stick to government organisations for his next role. “For now, I guess I will be my wife’s chauffeur,” he said.

The law review coincided with with the double-20th anniversary of the EOC and the commencement of Hong Kong’s first anti-discrimination legislation. The submission is based on findings of a four-month-long consultation conducted in July 2014, attracting over 125,000 written responses from the public.
Correction: The previous version mistakenly equated LGBTI issue to same-sex marriage and was revised on March 31 at 12:00noon.