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This piece of content is part of multiple stories. We recommend you read this content in the context of one of the following stories:

China business or human rights? Hong Kong protests leave Cathay facing a tough balancing act

Author: Surya Deva, South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Published on: 16 August 2019

The recent notice from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, that no Cathay Pacific staff who had taken part in “illegal protests”, “violent actions” and “overly radical activities” would be allowed to fly to or from mainland China – and the response of Cathay as well as its major investor Swire to this notice – has put the spotlight on the issue of companies’ human rights responsibilities. Similar questions have been raised about the responsibility of companies supplying tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds to Hong Kong Police, or of companies whose shopping malls protesters may enter and take shelter in.

…In June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which outline an authoritative framework for corporate human rights responsibility…over and above any responsibility that companies may have under domestic laws…Moreover, Cathay Pacific has a code of conduct which provides…that any “form of harassment or discrimination on the basis of … political opinion will not be tolerated”…

So far, Cathay has (i) sacked two of its airport employees for leaking information, (ii) terminated the employment of two pilots for their involvement in, or support for, protests, (iii) instructed that Cathay property should not be used to post non-work content or to make unauthorised public announcements, and (iv) advised its employees not to “express any radical opinions in social and open media” or “support or participate in illegal protests”, or otherwise face disciplinary action, including  termination of employment…

Cathay’s decision in the first situation would be justified and in line with its responsibility to protect the privacy of its customers, as long as due process was followed and the disciplinary action was proportional to the alleged wrong conduct. However, the dismissal of two pilots, who were previously suspended from duty, for protest-related incidents is problematic. The pilot charged for alleged rioting has not yet been convicted, and, even if convicted, this should not be equated with a typical crime.The conduct of the other pilot hardly compromised passenger safety or harmed Cathay’s reputation. The termination, which appears to have been done to please Beijing and discourage other staff from supporting protests, would run counter to Cathay’s responsibility to respect the human rights of its employees…

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