Sexual harassment in the sky: Hong Kong flight attendants fight back

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In this photo taken on September 19, 2018, Dora Lai, Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants Union leader and a cabin manager, poses during an interview with AFP in Hong Kong. (AFP)
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This photo taken on October 3, 2018 shows Hong Kong-based flight attendant Venus Fung, who works for a European airline, posing during an interview with AFP in Hong Kong. (AFP)
Updated 10 December 2018
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Sexual harassment in the sky: Hong Kong flight attendants fight back

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

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 carriers — but Hong Kong-based workers are increasingly hitting back against sexual harassment.
Female cabin crew told AFP of how they had been harassed not only by passengers but also by colleagues.
While they say carriers have made some steps in the right direction, they argue airlines still lag far behind in the #MeToo era.
Venus Fung, whose experiences drove her to join and lead the Cabin Attendants Union of Hong Kong, says airlines must teach workers on how to deal with harassment.
Fung, 29, said the issue was never raised in her company 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 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, Fung added, instead threatening to report her for wearing a skirt that was “too tight.”
As a result 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 it looks very fancy with the uniform, heels and makeup. There are fantasies around this industry and it’s hard to change public perception but it absolutely cannot be an excuse for bad behavior,” Fung said, calling for an awareness-raising campaign.
“Education is key to changing people’s attitudes. It’s difficult to carry out overnight, it takes time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do these things.”
The airline did not respond to requests by AFP for comment.

The complaints from attendants like 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 and publishes a calendar featuring scantily-dressed models posing on planes, has sparked criticism for its marketing ploys.
Owned by Vietnam’s only female billionaire, the airline had to apologize for sending lingerie models to join the country’s under-23 football squad on a flight home in January after a social media outcry.
Some airline staff in Hong Kong told AFP the perceived glamor attracted many women to the job — there are popular makeup tutorials on YouTube by flight attendants from Dubai-based airline Emirates on how to achieve their look.
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 and check it at regular intervals, according to an official handbook.
Male staff are also under scrutiny — banned from wearing make-up but told they must “maintain a clear complexion at all times.”
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 it would introduce a trouser option for female attendants, ending a 70-year skirt rule.
But Dora Lai, Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants Union leader and a cabin manager, said that while the move was a step toward gender equality, it would do little to end sexual harassment without a shift in public and staff awareness.
Lai said many airline advertisements deployed beautiful women to sell the industry’s “sex appeal,” rather than the practical skills of the job.
“We are there to provide a service and to bring our passengers safely from point A to point B,” she said.

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.
A Cathay attendant who did not want to be identified told AFP her in-flight manager had been reluctant to warn a passenger who had patted her head and back repeatedly, which she described as “humiliating.”
“I felt angry and sad. I was the concerned party, not just relaying the incident... And after telling him, the supervisor was still not supportive,” she said.
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 apologize, 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.


Amid wall debate, pope visits Panama with migration in mind

Updated 11 min 52 sec ago
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Amid wall debate, pope visits Panama with migration in mind

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis is looking to leave the sex abuse scandal buffeting his papacy behind as he heads to Central America amid a standoff over President Donald Trump’s promised wall at the US-Mexico border and a new caravan of migrants heading north.
History’s first Latin American pope, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, has made the plight of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy. He is also expected to offer words of encouragement to young people gathered in Panama for World Youth Day, the church’s once-every-three-year pep rally that aims to invigorate the next generation of Catholics in their faith.
Panama Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa said Francis’ message is likely to resonate with young Central Americans who see their only future free of violence and poverty in migrating to the US — “young people who often fall into the hands of drug traffickers and so many other realities that our young people face.”
The pope is expected to urge young people to create their own opportunities, while calling on governments do their share as well.
The visit is taking place as the US government remains partly shut down in a standoff between the Trump administration and Democrats over funding for Trump’s promised border wall.
Francis famously has called for “bridges, not walls.” After celebrating Mass in 2016 on the Mexican side of the US border, he denounced anyone who wants to build a wall to keep out migrants as “not Christian.”
Crowds are expected to be smaller than usual for this World Youth Day — only about 150,000 people had registered as of last week — but thousands more will certainly throng Francis’ main events, which include a vigil and a final Mass on Sunday. The Vatican conceded that the January date doesn’t suit school vacations in Europe or North America, both of which typically send huge numbers of pilgrims to World Youth Day gatherings.
Francis’ trip, the first in a year packed with foreign travel, comes at a critical moment in the papacy as the Catholic hierarchy globally is facing a crisis in credibility for covering up decades of cases of priests molesting young people.
The pope is expected to soon rule on the fate of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the high-powered US archbishop accused of molesting minors and adults. And he is hosting church leaders at the Vatican next month on trying to chart a way forward for the global church.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said there were no plans for Francis to meet with abuse survivors in Panama. Central America hasn’t yet seen the explosion of sex abuse cases that have shattered trust in the Catholic hierarchy in Chile, the US and other parts of the world.
This is the first papal visit to Panama since St. John Paul II was there during a 1983 regional tour that famously included an unscheduled stop at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Romero had been gunned down by right-wing death squads three years earlier, at the start of El Salvador’s civil war, for having spoken out on behalf of the poor.
Salvadoran bishops had hoped Francis would follow suit and make a stop in El Salvador this time to pay his respects at Romero’s tomb since Francis canonized him in October. But the Vatican said a Salvador leg was never really in the cards.
Nevertheless, Gisotti said Romero would likely loom large at the Panama gathering, given he is such a point of reference for young Central American Catholics who grew up learning about his defense of the poor.
The Panama visit is also the first by a pope since the Vatican embassy played a crucial role during the 1989 US invasion of Panama, when dictator Manuel Noriega took refuge there and requested asylum on Christmas Eve after four days on the run trying to escape US troops.
Noriega eventually surrendered, bringing to an end one of the more unusual US military operations: It involved US troops blasting heavy metal and rock music — including Van Halen’s “Panama” — at the embassy to try to force Noriega out.
Noriega, a onetime US ally, eventually served a 17-year drug sentence in the United States. He died in 2017 after his final years were spent in a Panamanian prison for the murder of political opponents during his 1983-89 regime.