Former Cathay Pacific staff who say they were fired for supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters accused bosses on Monday of carrying out a “Cultural revolution” style political purge.
The Hong Kong-based airline has had a torrid few weeks after Chinese state media and authorities blasted the company because some of its 27,000 employees had taken part in — or were sympathetic to — anti-government protesters.
China’s aviation regulator barred staff supporting protests from working on flights to the mainland or traveling through its airspace, setting off chaos inside the company as it frantically tried to win back Beijing’s favour.
Both the airline’s CEO and Chairman made surprise departures as bosses issued repeated warnings to staff not to take part in the protests currently engulfing the financial hub.
In recent weeks staff have described deleting their social media accounts, fearful that colleagues might inform on them while Cathay announced it had sacked multiple staff linked to the protests.
On Monday, a group of former employees held a press conference alongside officials from the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Confederation and flight attendant unions.
They said at least 26 people had been fired from Cathay in protest-linked terminations.
Hiding their identities behind sunglasses and face masks they described summary firings, often after being shown screengrabs of their Facebook and other social media posts.
“It’s regrettable to see Cathay Pacific encouraging staff to report and criticise (others) internally,” one woman, who gave her first name as Jackie, told reporters. “The situation is just like in the Cultural Revolution.”
“Some crew were shown posts and updates on their private social media accounts and required to provide an explanation with evidence. Others were handed termination letters without any accusations,” she added.
One woman, who gave her name as Chris, tearfully described human resources asking her to explain three screenshots, one of which offered an opinion on the protests.
She said she was initially suspended and then fired.
“I wasn’t given any explanation. I was just escorted out of the office. I was very furious and devastated,” she said.
In a statement, Cathay said it had to abide by all regulations placed on it in any jurisdictions where it operates, “including those prescribed by the authorities in mainland China”.
“We will ensure 100 percent compliance with all our regulatory duties. Quite simply, this is our licence to operate; there is no ground for compromise,” the airline added.
The protests have also hit Cathay’s bottom line with August passenger numbers down 11.3 percent on last year, inbound Hong Kong traffic down 38 percent and outbound down 12 percent year-on-year, the biggest falls in a decade.
Beijing’s crackdown on Cathay has heightened fears among many Hong Kongers that the city’s free speech laws are increasingly under threat — particularly within any company that does business within the authoritarian mainland.
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