Asia's discriminating airlines: No dragons
allowed By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - The male business traveler in Asia notices one thing rather quickly
- the relative comeliness of the women who tend to him as he jets around the
region. The stewardesses on Asian airlines tend to be much younger and more
attractive than their matronly - sometimes even grand-matronly - counterparts
on American and European airlines.
The lovely results come as a consequence of what is perhaps the earliest of
early-retirement plans, with airlines forcing fading
beauties out to pasture at ages as young as 35.
Hong Kong provides a telling example of a
While the city's courts have adjudicated sex-discrimination cases and proposed
anti-racism legislation is making its way through the Legislative Council, Hong
Kong's mini-parliament, there is no law on the books preventing age
discrimination. Indeed, after losing a sex-discrimination case to one of its
female flight attendants
forced to retire at age 45, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong's flagship carrier,
responded by lowering the retirement age for its male attendants from 55 to 45;
now male and female cabin crew are fully equal at Cathay Pacific - both must
deplane at 45.
Japan Airlines (JAL), which employs 250 staff in Hong Kong, appears to be the
most youth-oriented carrier in the city. JAL has asked its Hong Kong-based
flight attendants to disembark as early as their 35th birthday, and it is fair
to say that most of these forced retirees think their premature superannuation
has nothing to do with their ability to serve cocktails and meals and remind
passengers to buckle up for takeoff and landing.
With the mandatory retirement age in Japan - now 60 - set to rise gradually to
65 by 2013, JAL's Hong Kong employees are understandably upset. Perhaps after
being forced out by JAL, they can find employment at rival Cathay Pacific or
Dragonair - another, smaller Hong Kong-based carrier in which Cathay Pacific
owns a significant stake - where the retirement age for flight attendants is a
more generous 45. Even for British Airways' Hong Kong staff, it is 45 and out,
although in Britain grandmother stewardesses are retiring at 65 - and so, in
compliance with a British law passed in 2004, are JAL cabin crew based in the
In Hong Kong, however, as in most other cities in Asia, youth reigns in the
airline business. Legislative councilor Lee Cheuk-yan, who is also the general
secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, thinks it is time to
bring age discrimination to a stop, especially in a modern, sophisticated city
like Hong Kong.
"It's terrible," he said. "I am not aware of any research that supports this
[discriminatory] practice. These airlines simply have an attitude problem. They
think the customers like younger girls. But how are cabin crew supposed to
survive after 45?"
Lee says the airlines are not the only industry in the city - where the
retirement age at public institutions is 55 - to discriminate in favor of
youth. He maintains that ageism is also rampant in the retail sector, where
those doing the hiring presume that a pretty face will improve sales. But he
calls this a "hidden discrimination" that takes place during the hiring process
and thus is more difficult to prove. What galls him about the airlines'
discrimination is that, even though it is so open and unabashed, nothing can be
done about it. Even the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission, established
10 years ago with the express purpose of combating discrimination, is powerless
to act without the necessary legislation in place.
Lee does not foresee anti-ageism legislation coming to Hong Kong any time soon,
however, because of what he perceives as the disproportionate influence of
corporate interests in the political life of the city. As he sees it, when Hong
Kong is granted full democracy by the central government in
Beijing - and no one can predict when that
is coming, either - then the local government will be compelled by the people
to enact an age-discrimination law.
If you look at Hong Kong's changing demographics, the councilor's point makes
sense. With a birthrate that, according to Civic Exchange, a respected local
think-tank, is the lowest in the world at 0.8 child per woman, Hong Kong is
aging faster than any other city on the planet. Government projections show
that life expectancy will reach 82 for men and 88 for women by 2031. Combined
with the low fertility rate, that means a quarter of the city's population will
be 65 or older within 25 years; meanwhile, of course, Hong Kong's workforce
will be shrinking dramatically.
The aging crisis is regarded as so acute that Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald
Tsang has called on every married couple to have three children. But in a
crowded city of high rents and cramped space, that call was greeted with
laughter and incredulity - but very little reproduction.
So, ironically, as Hong Kong becomes increasingly geriatric, the face of its
workforce in high-profile sectors of the economy remains remarkably young. And,
in the judgment of the city's top unionist, councilor Lee, the situation is
unlikely to change. Without a law on the books, he says, it is unlikely that
airlines and other businesses will act on their own.
The Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants Union, for example, has made no headway
with management on its demand for a flexible retirement plan that would allow
cabin crew to retire as late as 60, although Cathay Pacific says it will
"continue to review the subject". In Lee's view, as long as business interests
continue to wield disproportionate power in a city without full democracy, age
discrimination will be common practice in Hong Kong. "I am not optimistic," he
But is ageism even good business? In the case of airlines, could there be
competitive advantages to having an experienced crew on board that compensate
for fading beauty and youth? And how about a healthy mix of youth and
experience? Would that not be the best game plan - with or without an
Asia Times Online asked leading airlines in the city to explain their
retirement policies for cabin crew, and the responses ranged from
no response (at the extremely youthful JAL) to terse statements from Cathay
Pacific, Dragonair and British Airways that simply point out that their
policies are in line with those of their competitors. Ultimately, however,
these replies dodge the inherent ethical and business questions involved.
Clearly, this is a touchy subject for airlines from a public relations point of
view - but not touchy enough to bring about a change in policy without a change
in law. Wherever you are, just look around - youth and beauty do sell. In this
rapidly aging Asian hub, however, it appears there will be a lot less of the
two to sell over the next 25 years.
Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He
can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.