Controversy over Cathay Pacific incident sparks calls from various sectors for prompt legislation against ‘intra-race discrimination’

Ricky Chu

25th May 2023 – (Hong Kong) A recent incident involving a Cathay Pacific flight attendant who reportedly demanded that a non-English speaking passenger to pronounce the word ‘blanket’ instead of ‘carpet’ in order to receive assistance has sparked a debate in Hong Kong’s society about language discrimination. The incident has highlighted a gap in current anti-discrimination laws in Hong Kong, which do not cover language or religion.

According to Ricky Chu, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, while the incident may not directly fall under the current anti-discrimination laws, it could constitute “indirect discrimination” if a service provider insists on a specific language requirement before providing necessary services.

Chu also pointed out that the current anti-discrimination laws do not include language and religion as protected characteristics. The Equal Opportunities Commission has suggested amending the Race Discrimination Ordinance in 2021 to include discrimination against individuals of the same race, but the government has yet to make a final decision on the matter.

The incident has sparked concerns from various organisations that some Hong Kong citizens hold prejudices against mainland Chinese tourists and new immigrants, which could lead to offensive language and discriminatory behaviour. These prejudices, while not representative of the mainstream, can still affect Hong Kong’s image. Therefore, many organisations have called for the government to enact legislation against “intra-racial discrimination” and to promote equality education to change the culture of discrimination.

In response to the incident, Chu emphasised that Hong Kong should strive to understand and satisfy the needs of all customers, as it is an international metropolis with a diverse population. He further explained that if a service provider requires a specific language from a customer before providing assistance, it could be considered “indirect discrimination,” which is unfair to customers from various backgrounds.

Some community organisation representatives have also shared their experiences of discrimination against mainland Chinese immigrants and new immigrants in Hong Kong. They cited examples of discriminatory behaviour in schools, workplaces, and even restaurants, where some customers are not served because they don’t speak Cantonese or speak it with an accent.

While these incidents only involve a minority of Hong Kong citizens, the negative impact on Hong Kong’s image and reputation is significant. Therefore, many organizations have urged the government to take action to combat intra-racial discrimination and to promote equality education to promote a culture of inclusivity and respect.

Chu has previously discussed the issue of intra-racial discrimination with the government and proposed legislation to address the issue. However, the government has not yet made a final decision on the matter. Many community organisation representatives have expressed their frustration with the government’s delay and have urged the government to take swift action to combat discrimination.

The Cathay Pacific flight attendant discrimination incident against non-English speaking passengers has caused a huge uproar. Although the involved flight attendants have been fired, she remains unrepentant. A netizen claiming to be the flight attendant in question posted on a mainland social media platform, accusing the complaining passenger of being shameless for using a recording to make a complaint. The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union also issued a statement supporting the flight attendant, blaming the complainant for the incident. The passenger who reported the incident criticised the flight attendant online and said, “If you cannot say blanket in English, you cannot have it.” The post sparked more heated discussions. As of yesterday, the account claiming to be the involved flight attendant has been deactivated.

Not only did the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union fail to correct the involved flight attendant’s behaviour, but they also issued a statement to “support” her, expressing deep regret that the incident led to the dismissal of three flight attendants. The union claimed that as an international brand, Cathay Pacific Airways flight attendants provide attentive services to passengers from different cultural backgrounds and communicate with them in English and other languages qualified through company assessments. The union also claimed that someone publicly called on other passengers to “provoke” flight attendants and record their behaviour, which “seriously disturbed colleagues’ work.”

Mainland netizens were extremely dissatisfied with the involved flight attendant and the union’s “arrogant attitude, only blaming others for their mistakes.” They also expressed that “the company’s internal management is chaotic, and the top management cannot restrain the behaviour of frontline employees.”

The passenger who reported the incident later criticised the flight attendant, saying, “Until now, you and your colleagues have not realised that the phrase ‘if you cannot say blanket in English, you cannot have it’ is a blatant discrimination against those who cannot speak English. You are truly despicable.”

A netizen claiming to be a former Cathay Pacific flight attendant posted on the social media platform “Xiaohongshu” on the evening of the 23rd, stating that she was not surprised by the leaked recording and even said that it was ‘traditional’ for Cathay Pacific Airways to discriminate against mainland passengers. She also revealed that Cathay Pacific Airways does not recruit flight attendants from the Mainland.

The netizen stated that she was the only batch of Mainland flight attendants in Cathay Pacific Airways. After graduating from university, she joined Cathay Pacific Airways as a flight attendant from 2008 to 2009 because of the cooperation project between her university, Civil Aviation University of China, and Cathay Pacific Airways, which allowed graduates to work as interns at Cathay Pacific Airways for one year. She also uploaded several photos of herself wearing Cathay Pacific Airways flight attendant uniforms to prove that she had worked for the company.

The netizen claimed, “Every flight I have been on, there are always mocking words in the kitchen whenever there are mainlandpassengers. It has become the norm.” She also stated that Cathay Pacific Airways did not mention the issue of discrimination against mainland passengers during their training, but on almost every flight with mainland passengers, flight attendants would ridicule them behind their backs or use derogatory language, mocking their English skills. “It happens on every flight, even though they know I am a mainland Chinese,” she added.

As one of the few Mainland flight attendants in Cathay Pacific Airways, the netizen stated that the company does not recruit flight attendants from the mainland. She mentioned that as an international airline, Cathay Pacific Airways recruits flight attendants from the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea to facilitate serving passengers speaking the local language. However, they do not recruit flight attendants from the Mainland. As an intern, she was only allowed to work for one year before leaving. She also pointed out that although Cathay Pacific Airways does not recruit flight attendants from the Mainland, they still recruit flight attendants from Taiwan to serve passengers speaking Mandarin, which is ironic.