Hong Kong’s top airline can’t escape the city’s political crisis.
The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, a major local labor organization, called on Cathay Pacific (CPCAY) on Friday to “respect the freedom of speech of employees.” The remarks followed the firing of one of its affiliate union’s leaders, a flight attendant for the airline’s regional subsidiary Cathay Dragon.
The flight attendant, Rebecca Sy, spoke to reporters about her firing. She claimed that she was preparing for a flight bound for mainland China earlier this week when she was suddenly pulled off and confronted by company management about Facebook posts she said were deemed too political.
Sy claims she never violated any rules, and is now demanding to be reinstated.
Cathay Pacific declined to comment on details of Sy’s situation.
“We would like to reiterate that we do not in any way discriminate against union members or their activities,” a spokesperson told CNN Business.
“Any actions taken by the [airline] with regards to our employees is always in strict accordance with the terms of their relevant employment contracts as well as applicable laws and regulations,” the spokesperson added.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests have thrust Cathay Pacific, the city’s flagship carrier with a workforce of 27,000 people, into disarray.
Chinese state media have slammed Cathay workers taking part in illegal demonstrations, and the airline has vowed to fire employees who are found doing so. The company’s bottom line has also been directly hit by the turmoil, with a drop in bookings and hundreds of its flights canceled when protesters occupied the airport.
The airline’s CEO and chief commercial officer resigned last week, and at least two pilots have been terminated for reasons related to the demonstrations, a well-placed source within the company told CNN.
Cathay’s relationship with Beijing has become a major source of tension. Earlier this month, mainland Chinese authorities said they would not allow Cathay flights crewed by people who have taken part in “illegal demonstrations, protests and violent attacks” to fly over their airspace, a rule the airline said it would follow.
At a press conference on Friday, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions called on Cathay to “respect the freedom of speech of employees.”
“We have never given up our company. Unfortunately, the company has given me up,” said Sy, adding that she has spent her entire 17-year career at Cathay.
Sy said she was getting ready for a flight to Hangzhou on Tuesday when she was suddenly instructed to stay back in Hong Kong.
The next day, Sy said, she was summoned to a meeting with managers at the company, where they showed her three screenshots of posts made on her private Facebook page.
One of the posts contained remarks where Sy said she was worried about going to mainland China.
Another showed her putting up Post-Its on a flight to wish her colleague a happy birthday, she said. The flight attendant claims that managers used the screenshot to accuse her of making a mini “Lennon wall,” similar to pro-democracy protesters’ sticky note displays of solidarity that have sprung up across the city.
After confirming that the posts were made on her Facebook account, Sy was immediately terminated, she said.
When she asked why she was being fired, the company officials allegedly said they could not tell her the reason.
Sy was then asked to hand over her staff ID and escorted out of the office, she told reporters.
The former flight attendant says her story has created a chilling effect among her colleagues.
As many as 1,200 Cathay Pacific crew and 600 Cathay Dragon staff participated in a major strike at Hong Kong’s international airport earlier this month, according to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
A growing number of workers have faced serious consequences since then. At least 11 aviation workers have already been fired this month, said Carol Ng, a local labor activist who also spoke at the press conference on Friday.
“Terrified. All my colleagues are all terrified,” said Sy.
Jill Disis and Stella Ko contributed to this report.