Hong Kong flight attendants fight sexual harassment

Female Hong Kong cabin crew members are hitting back against sexual harassment. They say they have been harassed at work not only by passengers but also other airline staff. Cabin Attendants Union of Hong Kong leader Venus Fung (above) says airlines
Female Hong Kong cabin crew members are hitting back against sexual harassment. They say they have been harassed at work not only by passengers but also other airline staff. Cabin Attendants Union of Hong Kong leader Venus Fung (above) says airlines must teach workers how to deal with harassment. She also calls for a public campaign to raise awareness.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HONG KONG • Immaculate-looking flight attendants who appear unruffled by the demands of a life spent in the air are part of the slick image sold by airlines - but Hong Kong-based workers are increasingly hitting back against sexual harassment.

Female cabin crew told Agence France-Presse (AFP) of how they had been harassed not only by passengers but also other airline staff.

While they say carriers have made some steps in the right direction, they argue airlines still lag far behind in the #MeToo era.

Ms Venus Fung, whose experiences drove her to join and lead the Cabin Attendants Union of Hong Kong, says airlines must teach workers how to deal with harassment.

Ms Fung, 29, said the issue was never raised in her company's training. The Hong Kong-based attendant told AFP she had been physically picked up by a pilot who touched her chest, waist and bottom, commenting she had a nice body, when she was new to the job more than two years ago.

"At that moment, I was really angry, but I was mostly also panicking and afraid. My mind went completely blank - I had no idea what to do or how to react," said Ms Fung, who works for a European airline which she did not want to identify for fear of recrimination.

The cabin manager who witnessed the incident did not intervene, Ms Fung added, instead threatening to report her for wearing a skirt that was "too tight".

As a result Ms Fung stopped wearing skirts at work for more than a year, opting for trousers instead.

She has since been training colleagues on how to report sexual harassment and seek help, but said long-term cultural changes are needed.

"When a flight attendant comes out, she looks very fancy with the uniform, heels and make-up. There are fantasies around this industry and it's hard to change public perception but it absolutely cannot be an excuse for bad behaviour," Ms Fung said, calling for an awareness-raising campaign.

The complaints from attendants like Ms Fung come as demands for change grow worldwide.

 
 

The US-based Association of Flight Attendants last year called on American airlines to "renounce the past objectification of flight attendants".

Vietnamese budget carrier VietJet, which has staffed some of its inaugural flights with bikini-clad attendants, has sparked criticism for its marketing ploys.

Some airline staff in Hong Kong told AFP the perceived glamour attracted many women to the job. But others say some of the industry's grooming standards are outdated.

Staff at Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific must wear eyeshadow, lipstick and nail polish in specifically approved shades, according to an official handbook.

Cathay's cabin crew representatives say they will push to make nail polish optional in talks with the company next year.

The airline announced in March that it would introduce a trouser option for female attendants, ending a 70-year skirt rule.

Despite Cathay launching an online course with a special section on sexual harassment for Hong Kong cabin staff in March, the union says some in-flight managers continue to distrust staff who report cases.

Cathay Pacific told AFP it provided training to all staff on the "prevention and elimination of discrimination and harassment in the workplace".

But attendant Michelle Choi said the company needed to go further to support staff in taking immediate action, from giving warnings to asking passengers to apologise, or in some cases reporting to police.

"We want flight attendants to know what they can do instead of feeling embarrassed about reporting the case and, in the end, making excuses to tolerate these acts, as many used to do before," she said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2018, with the headline 'HK flight attendants fight sexual harassment'. Print Edition | Subscribe