May 07, 2014

    HK's shame, global aviation's problem

    IT IS not easy being a flight attendant at Hong Kong's award-winning Cathay Pacific.

    Selection criteria are strict, service standards are high and, according to Michelle Choi, a Cathay union official, a Cathay flight attendant must put up with being sexually harassed by a passenger about "one in every 10 flights".

    She is not exaggerating. In February, the city's Equal Opportunity Commission and the Hong Kong Flight Attendants Association released the results of a survey showing that 27 per cent of the city's flight attendants had been sexually harassed in the past 12 months, and 47 per cent had "either heard about or witnessed" a colleague being harassed.

    What is worse, the same survey revealed that 68 per cent of the respondents had received no training on "preventing sexual harassment", and the remaining 32 per cent had received their training from online courses.

    Needless to say, Hong Kong's shame is the global aviation community's problem.

    Cathay Pacific doesn't just fly to Hong Kong - it is a rapidly expanding international carrier that will nearly double the number of flights it offers to the United States this year, while partnering with other carriers worldwide (including American Airlines).

    The immediate origins of Hong Kong's airborne sexual harassment problem can be traced to several sources, including a culture of sexual permissiveness in high-end Hong Kong establishments (such as business-class cabins) that are frequented by wealthy and powerful men; an obvious failure by airlines to train and protect their employees; and a lack of legal protection from sexual harassment for service employees in Hong Kong.

    At the same time, it does not help that Cathay and other Hong Kong airlines have historically marketed their airlines using images of young, attractive flight attendants.

    Take, for example, the shy, unassuming Cathay flight attendant in a notorious 2011 print ad. "I just like to listen more than talk," she is quoted as saying, eyes averted demurely. It is not an invitation to harassment, but if a passenger (especially a drunk one) is inclined to harass, such an advertisement certainly would not dissuade him (or her).

    This type of marketing is not exclusive to Hong Kong, of course. The US aviation industry pioneered the practice of hiring and highlighting comely young flight attendants during the so-called "Golden Age" of aviation.

    Fortunately, the advent of mid-1960s anti-discrimination laws and lawsuits put an end to such hiring practices.

    Sadly, Hong Kong is still a long way from meeting a still imperfect US standard, as evidenced by Ms Choi's decision to offer sex harassment figures to the South China Morning Post.

    The problem is not just the high rate of harassment; Ms Choi claims the rate has been increasing in large part due to uniforms that the union believes are immodest.

    Specifically, the flight attendants' blouses hike up and reveal skin when an attendant reaches up or down. Cathay, when contacted by South China Morning Post, declined to modify the uniform, stating that it had been designed with crew input before its introduction in 2011.

    Needless to say, the airline should take the initiative and modify the uniform immediately, as well as implement a company-wide training programme (and not just an online one) on how to handle and report sexual harassment from passengers.

    But these are modest steps that would not mean much if Hong Kong's government does not offer legal protection from sexual harassment for flight attendants and other service employees. Given the scale and high profile of this particular problem, it should, and soon.