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Wednesday, December 28, 2016, 00:19

It pays to promote equality for LGBTI groups

By Suen Yiu-tung

Earlier this year, “The Study on Legislation against Discrimination on the Grounds of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status”, of which I was the principal investigator, concluded there should be a public consultation in Hong Kong on legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. The study found that the Hong Kong public is becoming more receptive to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, with a staggering 91.8 percent of respondents aged 18-24 supporting legislation to protect LGBTI people from discrimination. I conducted the study with a research team at the Gender Research Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and it was commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Many leading international companies are extending to employees in same-sex partnerships the benefits hitherto only available to married couples. Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JP Morgan and Standard Chartered among others have built LGBTI and ally networks to promote inclusion, while Panasonic Corp in Japan has announced that benefits such as maternity leave, health insurance and cash bonuses will be made available to employees in same-sex relationships. The business communities in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia are beginning to recognize the case for promoting an LGBTI-friendly workplace.

Yet there is still some way to go. Some companies remain reluctant to take these steps, believing that Asian and Chinese cultures are somehow different. They worry that if they speak up too strongly on LGBTI issues, there may be a backlash by a general public generally perceived to be conservative.

They might be surprised by the findings of two recent surveys conducted by the Sexualities Research Programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to investigate the attitudes of the Hong Kong public, as well as lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people, toward LGB-friendly businesses.

It found that 50 percent of the Hong Kong public who were surveyed would not change their view of a business if that business had a supportive stance on LGB issues. A further 25 percent viewed LGB-friendly businesses positively, while the remaining quarter saw LGB-friendly businesses negatively. A net gain in terms of a public positive image can also be seen for organizations that provide benefits to same-sex partners and support anti-discrimination laws. Companies might not need to fear the strong public backlash that they imagined.

At the same time, it is noteworthy that more than 80 percent and 70 percent of the LGB respondents said they are more likely to work and give their custom to LGB-friendly companies respectively.

Hong Kong was recently rated the world’s most competitive economy by the IMD World Competitive Center. The recognition comes after the US think tank Heritage Foundation ranked Hong Kong as the world’s freest economy for the 21st year in a row. While Hong Kong’s liberal economic regime and well-developed infrastructure are lauded by global research institutions, many of its policies remain too conservative to attract talented LGBTI professionals who could help Hong Kong sustain its competitive edge in the region.

“The Study on Legislation against Discrimination on the Grounds of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status” found that discrimination against the LGBTI community was particularly pervasive in employment.

LGBTI people reported that they experienced discrimination, both at the individual/personal level and the institutional/policy level, throughout the employment cycle from job-seeking and working, to the dismissal processes. The sources of discrimination included employers, human resources (HR) personnel, colleagues and clients/service users/students in school. In the workplace, LGBTI employees say they face dismissal, differential treatment or harassment when their identity or status is revealed.

I also interviewed many LGBTI people, including same-sex couples who had entered into legally recognized relationships in other jurisdictions either in the form of civil partnerships or same-sex marriages and moved to Hong Kong. In such same-sex relationships, when one person was granted a work visa to move to Hong Kong, their legal partner is always refused a dependent visa. The partners who were denied dependent visas almost by default face considerable difficulties adapting to life in Hong Kong. They are unable to work, open a bank account, or register for a mobile phone contract. They cannot access public health care or claim married tax allowances.

Yet anti-LGBTI policies and practices can breed grudges, reduce productivity and eventually hurt a business. Even more damaging, they can deter those with exceptional skills and expertise from taking up employment in Hong Kong.

Instituting an LGBTI-friendly legal framework and business practice does not require a revolution. Ample examples from around the world can be readily adopted in Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan context. The CUHK study commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission has prescribed options to develop anti-discrimination laws. A possible approach would be to build a new ordinance based on the existing discrimination ordinances, or amend the Sex Discrimination Ordinance to incorporate provisions relevant to sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

As Asia’s leading international city, Hong Kong has a responsibility to address this issue. It must attract and retain the best global talent regardless of nationality, faith or sexual orientation. The government and business sector should proactively implement LGBTI-friendly policies, stamp out discrimination and help to build a more congenial environment that embraces differences. If we celebrate diversity in our workforce now, we will reap the rewards in the future.

The author is an associate director of the Gender Research Centre and founding director of the Sexualities Research Programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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