A labor leader at the budget airline of Hong Kong’s flagship carrier was called in to a meeting and shown printouts of her Facebook posts. Then she was fired.
The firing of Rebecca Sy, the head of Cathay Dragon’s Flight Attendants Association and a 17-year veteran with the group, is the latest move against Cathay Pacific employees who have been facing China’s wrath for supporting Hong Kong’s mass protests. Last Friday (Aug. 16), the airline’s then CEO Rupert Hogg stepped down, saying he and his deputy should “take responsibility as leaders of the company” for the challenging weeks the airline was facing.
At a press conference today (Aug. 23), Sy recounted the events around her firing. Sy, who’s employed as a senior purser at the airline, said she received a company phone call as she was on her way to board a flight to mainland China on Aug. 20 pulling her from the trip. The next day, she was called to Cathay’s headquarters in Hong Kong and shown her screenshots of Facebook posts on the protests. “They asked me, ‘Is that your Facebook account?'” she said. When she confirmed it was, she was told, “You’re now being terminated.”
“I don’t know how much more we have to bend down so that we are safe,” Sy told reporters, according to the Hong Kong Free Press, adding, “This is not just about me. This is about the whole industry. This is about Hong Kong. When will this white terror end?”
The phrase “white terror,” refers to an atmosphere of political denunciations and suppressions—which is what Cathay employees say they’re facing right now. Part of local conglomerate Swire Group, Cathay Pacific is possibly Hong Kong’s best-known brand, and 80% of its more than 30,000 employees are in the city. Many of them, born and brought up here, have taken the protest calls to heart, with a Cathay Pacific pilot repeating a popular protest slogan in a cabin announcement, while the main Cathay Pacific flight attendants’ union expressed its support for a general strike on Aug. 5. The airline was forced to cancel hundreds of flights after many of its employees joined that strike.
A Cathay Pacific pilot was also among dozens of people charged at the end of July with rioting.
Cathay earlier said it supported its employees’ rights to protest. Swire’s own human rights policy says “we conduct our businesses in a manner which respects the human rights and dignity of our employees.”
But after the strike, many in China called for a boycott of the airline, while China’s airline regulator accused the carrier of putting safety at risk. In an Aug. 10 letter to employees, Hogg said that the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) was requiring it to bar employees who “support or take part in illegal protests, violent actions, or overtly radical behavior” from working on flights involving mainland China. Cathay Pacific was also told to submit information about crew members who do participate in such flights and about steps it was taking internally to “improve flight safety and security.” Since then the airline has warned staff several times to be careful in social media and other activities.
While critics of the protests have warned they are harming the city’s image as a business hub–particularly in the wake of protests that shut down the airport last week—many have said the retaliation taking place against Cathay Pacific staff is also sending a strong message to businesses on the repercussions of getting on the wrong side of China. Including Sy, more than half a dozen employees have been fired or resigned in recent weeks. Sy couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Some at the airline are finding their support for Hong Kong’s protests being outed via groups on messaging apps like Telegram. According to HKFP, which cited Apple Daily, a former colleague captured screenshots of Sy’s comments on the protests, and urged people to send them to the CAAC.
The demonstrations, which have been continuing since June 9, began in opposition to a now-suspended extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China for trials. Over weeks they’ve broadened encompass a wider range of requests such as the resignation of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, an investigation into alleged police brutality, and universal suffrage in choosing the city’s leader.
Cathay Pacific confirmed Sy’s firing and said “her departure has nothing to do with her union leadership role or her union activities.” It added that it couldn’t comment on individual terminations but said “we take into account all relevant circumstances including applicable regulatory requirements.”
In a statement today, Cathay Pacific also said said it “it fully supports the upholding of the Basic Law and all the rights and freedoms afforded by it,” adding that “recent weeks have been most challenging for all of our people.”