The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions has called for increased maternity protections after an employee accused cosmetics company Crabtree & Evelyn of discrimination and unlawfully dismissing her after she gave birth.

Lawmaker Jonathan Ho Kai-ming of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions called on the government to extend maternity leave to 14 weeks and establish a job protection period of six months for new mothers.

A Mrs. Teng, who sought Ho’s help, appeared at a press conference on Monday and alleged that she was discriminated against while employed by the firm.

discrimination maternity
Photo: Jonathan Ho.

She was hired as the company’s Sales and Operation Manager in October 2016 and passed her probation period early due to good performance, receiving an 8.4 per cent raise. But a new manager, who became Teng’s boss in January, extended her probation by two months. Teng claimed that, beforehand, he called her previous company and found out that she was pregnant. When she refused to accept the extension, he threatened to fire her unless she voluntarily resigned.

“He wanted me to leave right away – I was not even given time to pack up my belongings,” she said.

After Teng contacted the Labour Department, the department intervened and the company asked her to return to work two weeks later. She said she was met with “discrimination and bullying” when she returned, including being seated in front of the restroom and other colleagues being discouraged from speaking to her. She also said her pay was deducted when she went to doctor’s appointments.

Labour Tribunal

According to Ming Pao, Teng said her boss told her “I cannot fire you now because you’re pregnant, but I will fire you after you come back.” She was fired the same month after returning to work.

She said that when she tried to find out why she was fired, “it was as if the company was suddenly afraid that I wouldn’t leave – they called the police to get them to take me away.”

Teng won a case against her employer at the Labour Tribunal last month, and was awarded nearly HK$100,000 in wages and vacation pay.

She said she also sought help from the Equal Opportunities Commission and the case was handed to the commission’s legal team to handle.

discrimination maternity
Mrs. Teng. Photo: Jonathan Ho.

She said she suffered emotional distress from the experience, describing it as a “stain” on her life. “Is it wrong to be pregnant?”

According to Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s policy address, the government is looking into extending the statutory 10-week maternity leave, but the process would take at least three years.

Leung Chung-yan, the head of the FTU’s women’s affairs commission, said current legislation only protects women against unfair dismissal while they are pregnant, and not after they give birth.

She said that new mothers often meet with discrimination in the workplace while they are pregnant or after they give birth, and would be neglected or bullied by employers to induce them to resign so the employers would not violate labour regulations.

She called for the government to establish a six-month job protection period to protect mothers against discrimination and unfair dismissal.

Crabtree & Evelyn denied Teng’s allegations in an official response to press enquiries on Wednesday, and called news reports on her claims “defamatory reports which carry no merit.”

“Regarding a former staff’s complaint about unreasonable treatment by management, an immediate investigation was conducted at the time when concerns were first raised over a year ago,” the company said.

“While we protect all of our employees’ rights and privacy, we can state both that the allegations suggested in the news report are not accurate or substantiated by the results of that investigation.”

It added that 93 per cent of its staff in the Hong Kong office are women and that a number of them were currently pregnant.

“We care about our employees and are fully committed to supporting them during their pregnancy. After maternity leave, most of them choose to go back to work.”

catherine lai

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.