Laws perfectly inadequate in addressing discrimination in Hong Kong

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In 2011, Mr Arjun Singh, then an 11-year old child, Hong Kong native of Indian descent, was accused by a Chinese woman of assault (by bumping her while passing on an escalator). He alleges the woman grabbed and detained him and he called 999, seeking police help. So did the woman. But the police only detained the child, claiming they had to “find him a Punjabi-speaking interpreter” – even though he asserted that he only understood English.

Following his prolonged his detention a lawsuit was filed against Hong Kong Police for racial discrimination. The case was eventually lost.

Ms Puja Kapai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, points to this high-profile case as an example of how the Race Discrimination Ordinance (RDO) that took effect in 2009 often has little effect in real, everyday situations.

Heading for the UN

On August 1, the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, formed by law experts and human rights advocates in Hong Kong, discussed racial discrimination in Hong Kong before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to scrutinize a government report filed to the United Nations.

They committee’s findings are less than encouraging. It says the government has developed policies that are unfavorable to ethnic minorities but, ironically, the government will not be held responsible for racial discrimination.

“The government is not required to comply with the RDO (Race Discrimination Ordinance ). This is a major weakness,” says Ms Kapai. “Racial discrimination in prison or by the police will not be addressed.”

She adds that the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the body that implements the RDO, is weak.

“It depends on government funding and its members are appointed by the government. It is ineffective and not independent,” she explains.

Mr Law Yuk Kai, a director of Hong Kong Human Rights Watch, says the RDO fails to address indirect discrimination as well.

“Ethnic minorities are required to have high proficiency in Chinese when looking for a job. This constitutes indirect discrimination, which is not included in the definition of discrimination in the RDO,” Mr Law says. By ‘high proficiency’, he explains that employers require them to show competence in understanding, for example, ancient Chinese poems – while they have perfectly adequate modern spoken Chinese for use in normal day to day situations.

Education failing minorities

Ethnic minorities are also facing discrimination in many aspects of life because of flawed government policies.

Phyllis Cheung, executive director of the non-profit Hong Kong Unison, points out the education policies are not creating racial harmony.

“Many from the ethnic minorities still do not know how to read or write Chinese. Also, 60 percent of them go to around 30 schools here, when there are 800 schools in total. This is de facto racial segregation,” Ms Cheung explains.

She adds that there is still no Chinese-as-a-second language policy and curriculum resulting in ethnic minority students not achieving adequate competence in Chinese that would enable them to fully integrate to the society.

Welcome to Hong Kong! Not really.

Ms Johan Tong, a representative at Mission For Migrant Workers, also says domestic helpers are facing discrimination regarding immigration policies.

“They come to Hong Kong on a foreign domestic helper visa, which is already discrimination itself. Also, it is difficult to change it into a work visa,” says Ms Tong.

She also cites the mandatory live-in rule and the “two-week rule”, under which a migrant domestic worker must leave Hong Kong within two weeks of end of employment, including dismissal. These rules render them vulnerable to exploitation, and make it difficult for them to escape after being exploited.

Asylum bunkum

Ms Kelley Loper, law professor at the University of Hong Kong, says there are also concerns about asylum seekers in Hong Kong.

“Refugees in Hong Kong cannot work and they live on a very small amount of allowances. The authorities also do not provide reasons why asylum applications are successful or rejected,” says Ms Loper.

Ms Claudia Yip, a representative of legislator Dennis Kwok, speaks of the delay in legislating against human trafficking.

“The current laws may be applicable to certain acts, but they cannot reflect the severity of human trafficking as they usually entail lenient punishment, causing further connivance and even encouraging trafficking in Hong Kong,” says Ms Yip.

The commission says the government has been allocating funds to address these issues, but little is done.

“Funding does not guarantee an outcome. There is no information transparency, no reports submitted to the LegCo regarding how successful these measures are,” says Ms Kapai.

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