Humans of Hong Kong

Humans of Hong Kong

Translated version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News. 立場新聞專題、人訪的英文版本。

2019/12/2 - 10:43

The Aftermath of the Cathay Pacific Purge: Whistleblowing, Flight Safety Scandal, and a Weakened Union

Turn the clock back to the time of Kai-Tak Airport - whenever a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 glided over Kowloon City, kids would climb up to the terraces of tong lau (tenement buildings), and point excitedly at the incoming airplane using the bamboo poles that were used to hang clothes out to dry. Even in foreign lands, one could still hear a familiar  Cantonese voice, making the in-flight announcements on the plane.

That was once the impression Hongkongers had of Cathay Pacific: A Hongkongers’ company, which we could be proud of.

In recent years, Cathay Pacific has plummeted in various ranking tables, out of a general perception of its mismanagement; the laurels on which Cathay Pacific once rested appear to have disappeared. From the start of the anti-extradition movement, Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon have allegedly fired more than 30 staff for the political views their staff expressed in public or private. That which was once a “Hongkongers’ company”, seems no more.


The Cathay Pacific Purge has a seminal impact beyond the immediate dismissals of dozens of people. Stand News interviewed several staff who were sacked over the course of the purge, revealing how this Hong Kong brand in which Hongkongers once took pride, has been consumed by mistrust amongst its rank and file employees and staff members’ fear of and grievances towards the company.

2019 年 8 月 28 日,國泰工會反白色恐怖集會(職工盟圖片)
On 8 August 2019, the CX union organised a rally against the white terror. (Photograph: Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions)

2019 年 8 月 28 日,國泰工會反白色恐怖集會(職工盟圖片)
On 8 August 2019, the CX union organised a rally against the white terror. (Photograph: Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions)

Apolitical Alice

Alice has been a flight attendant for Cathay Pacific for almost twelve years. She was proud of this Hongkongers’ company for which she worked. During our interview her eyes glowed with passion when she recalled her days on board - Alice loved her job.

She has longstanding and fond memories about her experience on board. Faced with a romping child, Alice took him to the side and played with him, so that the other passengers could take a rest quietly. With an old Spanish-speaking lady, Alice asked her to put her meal preference on a note paper and asked other passengers to translate it for her…

These were not strictly her duties, but Alice was happy to take a step further for her work.

“I really loved my job.” She could not stress this enough.

Alice calls herself a “Hong Kong Pig” – a colloquial term which refers to Hongkongers who do not care about politics, but only eat, shop and sleep. During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, her only concern was whether the traffic was running smoothly around Central or Admiralty. She only started paying attention to politics at the beginning of the anti-extradition movement in 2019 – after spending an hour in a rally at the airport before rushing home.

It never occurred to her that politics will inevitably come knocking on your door; “Hong Kong Pigs” are not exempt.

Whistleblowing in a WhatsApp Group

Alice has a four year old daughter. A couple of years ago she joined a WhatsApp group formed by Cathay Pacific cabin crew who were also mothers themselves, in which there were about 50 members, exchanging tips on raising children. Since June, the anti-extradition movement inevitably became the topic in the WhatsApp group.

She was told many young protesters on the frontline could not afford to eat properly because they needed to save up for gear. The street stalls that volunteered to collect food coupons for the youngsters were shuttered by police. Being a mother herself,  Alice felt awful for those kids. So she vented her anger in a message to the WhatsApp group: “If I put a donation box in Cathay Pacific City (The Headquarters of Cathay Pacific), I simply don’t believe that the police will dare to barge in.” She also discussed with other mothers a plan to buy some gear for the frontline protesters on their business trips abroad.

However, being a “Hong Kong Pig” for so long, Alice did not even have a clue on what supplies the frontline protesters needed, and where to get them from. After some chitter-chattering in the WhatsApp group, Alice ultimately did not act on her plans.

It never came to her mind that these private conversations between her and her friends would cost her job. She was summoned to the Headquarters. The Management Team showed  her multiple screenshots of her chat records on WhatsApp, asking her sternly if she sent those messages out. Out of fear of being sacked, she denied them categorically, saying her account might have been hacked.

Cathay Pacific demanded an explanation letter from her, but she was nonetheless sacked after a week, without any explanation from the management team. She only received the following reply: “Sorry, we can’t tell you.” She was offered three months of emotional counselling.

“I simply did what Hongkongers do after work, chatting on WhatsApp….”

“I was just WhatsApping, nothing else. Then I lost my job.” Alice told the reporter helplessly.

37 lost their jobs in the aviation industry for expressing their political views

Since the start of the anti-extradition movement, the Chinese Government has been putting pressure on businesses to do what they are told. Cathay Pacifc was one of the first to bow to the pressure.  What happened to Alice has merely been the tip of the iceberg. Many people have been sacked for expressing their political views on social media or messaging apps.

Carol Ng Man-yee, the leader of the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation, confirmed to Stand News that at least 37 people have been sacked since the start of the anti-extradition movement, including 8 pilots, 19 flight attendants, 4 ground staff, 4 general staff, and 2 managerial staff. 26 of them were Cathay Pacific staff, 7 Cathay Dragon, with the rest working either for Hong Kong Airlines or the Airport Authority Hong Kong.

Rebecca Sy, the leader of Cathay Dragon’s flight attendant union, said although the peak of dismissals had passed, some staff are still under investigation. She was told that there had been cases where staff of Cathay Dragon were forced to resign. Sy suspected that Cathay Dragon was adopting this tactic to turf people out.

Cathay Dragon: Mixe –  sacked for reasons outside of  work performance

Employees who have recently been sacked all share a similar experience: most of them had previously shown their support for the protest and criticised the government on social media or messaging apps. After that,  they were summoned to see senior management, and subsequently fired with no explanation.

Mixe, who has worked for Cathay Dragon for three years, is a typical case. One day, after stewarding a flight to Shanghai, he was suddenly called back to Hong Kong. The next day he was called to a meeting with two members from the management team. He was shown two sheets of A4 paper on which there were two printed screenshots of his private Facebook account; one was a photograph of a passengers’ list with his friend’s name on, that he had taken to welcome his friend on board; the other was a screenshot of his criticism of the police’s absurd behaviour.

The Management team asked him if these screenshots were from his Facebook account. Mixe knew the consequences of admitting that this was the case. At the end he said that he had photographed the passengers’ list, but denied criticising the police, saying that post had not come from his Facebook account. He was sacked six days later. When he demanded an explanation for his dismissal, Mixe was told: “I cannot tell you the reason.”

That was the eve of his 30th birthday. What a fabulous gift from his company – a dismissal letter, he said wryly.

“Why should you (the company) treat your staff this way? They are not sacking me because of my work performance, and they did not provide a reasonable explanation. I am very disappointed.”



Cabin Crew Cum First Aiders

The aviation industry played a significant role in the anti-extradition movement. In July they staged a massive rally at the airport and participated in the General Strike to paralyse the city’s transit system. Many more members of the industry took to the streets, taking up different roles on the frontline or at the rear as reinforcements.

“In the face of injustice, when our freedom and the core values of Hong Kong are being eroded, we must resist.”

Mixe revealed that many flight attendants had been working as first aiders at the scene of protest. This is because all flight attendants must undertake a first-aid training course, including learning how to put on a bandage, handle wounds, and engage in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), in case of emergencies on board. Many flight attendants have put their first-aid skills to use at protest sites.  A Telegram group was formed by flight attendants from Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon and other airlines to coordinate members’ efforts in setting up first aid stations during protests.

As the resistance movement unfolded, it began to take on a guerrilla-like nature, with protests springing up across Hong Kong. As a result, fixed first-aid stations no longer met the needs of the movement. The group was disbanded. In a resistance movement where one of the key principles is to encourage people to contribute from their own position, the members of the group duly did so. As for Mixe, he chose to continue his first-aid work on the frontline, in defiance of relentless tear gas offensives.

Cathay Pacific at the eye of the political hurricane

On 26 July, a voice recording that was alleged to originate from a Cathay Pacific pilot’s announcement on a flight from Japan to Hong Kong, went viral online. In that announcement, the pilot briefed the passengers about the anti-extradition rally at Hong Kong International Airport that evening, and said in Cantonese “Hongkongers, Add Oil! (Keep it up) Take good care of yourself!”. It was later confirmed by the carrier that the pilot was “no longer an employee (of Cathay Pacific).” During the clashes in Sheung Wan on 28 July, a Cathay Pacific pilot, Liu Chung Yin was among those who were arrested. He was subsequently sacked.

The anti-extradition movement placed Cathay Pacific at the eye of the political hurricane.

On 9 August, the Chinese Aviation Regulator said that Cathay crew who engaged in protests posed a threat to aviation safety in Mainland China. The Regulator issued a warning to Cathay Pacific, demanding that the company suspend personnel who engaged in illegal protests in the city from staffing flights in its airspace.

On 12 August, in an internal email to staff, Cathay Pacific warned staff not to support or participate in illegal protests at the airport.

On 22 August, Cathay Pacific issued a new set of guidelines to its staff, warning that staff members who participated in ‘illegal activities’ risked being sacked; the company said it had “zero tolerance” for those who participated in ‘illegal activities’.

On 29 August, Cathay Pacific updated the guidelines, making it explicitly clear that staff would not be allowed to post anything damaging to the company's reputation, and encouraging people to report the misconduct of other staff. Many staff saw it as a policy of encouraging ‘whistleblowing’.

In a press conference held by Rebecca Sy on 23 August, the leader of the Cathay Dragon Flight Attendant’s Association revealed that she had been summoned to the headquarters She was fired after she had been shown three screenshots from her Facebook profile by the management team. One post showed  a photograph of her celebrating her colleague’s  birthday, with a sticker “Happy Birthday” posted on the wall in the background. Sy said that the picture was used as evidence to accuse her of “setting up a Lennon Wall” on a flight.

Under political pressure from the Chinese Government, members of the senior management team of Cathay Pacific left in droves. On 16 August, the CEO of Cathay Pacific, Rupert Hogg, and Chief Customer and Commercial Officer, Paul Loo, both resigned. On 4 September, Cathay Pacfic chairman, John Slosar, announced his retirement. He was replaced by Patrick Healy, who had previously been Managing Director of Swire Coca-Cola Limited.

Whistleblowing breeds mistrust

After Cathay Pacific made ‘whistleblowing’ an official policy, the company became consumed by an atmosphere of mutual mistrust. WhatsApp groups were either disbanded, or conversations stuck strictly to business matters.

Mixe observed that the ‘whistleblowing’ policy led to a sudden loss of trust amongst his colleagues. Co-workers stopped hanging out when they flew to new places. He was told that there were even ‘blue’ (pro-government) staff who feigned ‘yellow; (pro-democracy) sentiments, in order to rat out their colleagues; they would record their private conversations with their colleagues and report them to the company. These anecdotes, true or not, stopped staff from chatting with each other. Under the cloud of white terror, a majority of Mixe’s colleagues have changed their Facebook profile pictures and names, and privated their Instagram accounts.

Alice said the idea of ‘whistleblower’ has always existed in the staff guidelines. The purpose of this provision is to ensure flight safety; for instance -  one should report to the company if a pilot is found drinking before work. But now the mechanism has become twisted and reduced to a nasty means of settling scores with people who do not share the same political views.

Alice also said that given Cathay Pacific is such a big company, one always has to work with new faces. It is very important for the cabin crew to get along instantly in order to work together effectively. A common saying in the industry, “Happy crew, happy passengers”, illustrates this. However the whistleblowing policy has taken a toll on staff morale. Staff members have stopped talking to each other, which naturally affects the quality of service.

Chloe, having worked for the Cathay Pacific for seven years, was sacked after the oxygen bottle scandal.

Chloe, having worked for the Cathay Pacific for seven years, was sacked after the oxygen bottle scandal.

The Oxygen Bottle Scandal

Asides from service quality, flight safety is becoming another major concern amongst staff. In August, Cathay Pacific said that during a routine inspection before departure, 13 portable oxygen bottles were emptied on two of its aircrafts in Toronto Airport.

Chloe, who worked for Cathay Dragon for seven year and a half years, told our Stand News reporter that she was sacked after having made a report about the problematic oxygen bottle, as required by procedure. She is worried that other staff would be deterred from reporting to the company regarding safety issues. The consequences could be dire.

Chole was working on a flight flying from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong on 21 September. On board she heard unusual noises hailing from an oxygen bottle stored in cabinet. She found the atmospheric pressure reading was below average. She asked another staff on board to double-check and confirm the source of the noises, and reported to the flight purser and captain.

She got a call from the police shortly after landing. She was asked to give a statement to the police on the phone. The whole cabin crew on that flight was summoned to the Headquarters after two days. In a conference room Chloe was drilled by four members of the management team for almost an hour, asking her what kind of noise she heard, the whereabouts of other staff when she found that out, and with which colleagues she was closest. The Management Team told her frankly that they suspected that the damage was done by people within the cabin crew, asking her which person looked most suspicious.

She did not believe her colleagues could take flight safety that frivolously, so she did not name anyone. She was sacked the next day.

“I was just inspecting and reporting, what have I done wrong?” She told the reporter helplessly.

“So if a similar situation occurs, what should the staff do? Should they still inspect it or just turn a blind eye to it?”

“After what has happened to me, many staff wanted to leave. It is not a company worth belonging to or staying in.” .”

“I have no regrets over my departure.”

Strike back?

The aviation industry has one of the most established trade unions in Hong Kong; its union has flagship status in the labour movement. But the chilling effect of the Cathay Pacific purge has dealt the labour movement a heavy blow. Numerous interviewees said the trade union had tried to stage a second strike after one round of continuous of dismissals, but it ultimately failed due to fear of further retaliation from the airline companies.

Chloe, who was sacked after the oxygen bottle scandal, said that there were discussions of striking, but people were worried about losing their jobs or being demoted. “We are all scared of being labelled.” The union could not come to a consensus – so the plan to strike has yet to be realized . She says she understands the worries of her colleagues; nonetheless, she said: “But still I am slightly disappointed.”Rebecca Sy expressed similar concerns. After her removal and the oxygen bottle scandal, the trade union tried to stage two rounds of strikes, but ultimately failed. One of the main concerns was that members of different political views might refuse to join in. The other reason was fear of retaliation from employers, as employees’ right to participate in political strikes is not safeguarded by the current legislation.

Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific’s policies have become increasingly oppressive, which deters people from striking. Sy said: “We are frightened of whistleblowing. You may be stabbed in the back just by mentioning the word ‘strike’, even if you don’t participate in it. I am afraid people will get fired before they manage to strike.”

The Cathay Pacific Purge has undermined the union’s ability to mobilise its members; the removal of Rebecca Sy took another toll on the union’s influence . Recently, dozens of “Blue Ribbon” (pro-government) members and members who are wives of police officers left the union. In spite of being a minority in a union of more than a thousand members, this group’s departure demonstrates how political divisions amongst union members are undermining the union’s ability to act.

Deterred from staging and joining in on strikes, union members are also more cautious when going to regular union events. Alice cited the example of the Annual General Meeting of the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendant Union (CPAFAU), which recently passed a motion authorising the Union to use its funds to support those who have been sacked to take legal action. Alice got her friend to vote, but her friend cautioned her to communicate in code, using ‘meeting up’ as a euphemism for ‘voting’, for fear that her participation in the regular activities of the union would lead to retaliation on the part of her employer.

2019 年 8 月 28 日,航空界在中環愛丁堡廣場舉辦集會,抗議業界白色恐怖。施安娜出席並上台發言。(立場新聞圖片)

2019 年 8 月 28 日,航空界在中環愛丁堡廣場舉辦集會,抗議業界白色恐怖。施安娜出席並上台發言。(立場新聞圖片)

Cathay Pacific is no longer a company for Hongkongers

Chloe still wants to be a flight attendant, but the oxygen bottle scandal and her dismissal will make her less employable in the eyes of other airlines. Her mother wanted her to change paths, and to join the insurance industry. To placate her mother, Chole went to a job interview.

As for Alice, her 12 years of in-flight experience have resulted in permanent injuries to her shoulders and waist, because she often needed to push the overhead luggage racks to close. She used to have regular appointments with specialist outpatient clinics and previously underwent physiotherapy. After being sacked, she no longer has access to the company’s medical insurance scheme.

Alice said that flight attendants are generally promoted in accordance with their seniority in their companies. However, despite her 12 years of seniority in Cathay Pacific, it will be  difficult for Alice to be promoted to an equivalent rank in other airlines. She will need to start from the bottom. What worries her most is that she might have been blacklisted by the Chinese Aviation Authority, which would make her unemployable to any other airline.

She has both her parents and children to support – bills for elderly care and kindergarten are mounting.

As for Mixe, he is going to study and develop his career in other industries. Regarding the company of which he was once so proud, he had these final words: “Cathay Pacific is no longer a Hongkongers’ company.”

Reporter / Simon Liu