‘Fear is spreading.’ Employees expose culture of fear at Hong Kong’s flagship airline

Updated 2:26 AM EDT, Mon September 30, 2019
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(CNN) —  

During the week, Ricky pilots passenger jets traveling around the world for one of Hong Kong’s flagship airlines, Cathay Pacific. But when the weekend arrives, he sheds his pilot cap and blazer in exchange for a face mask and helmet, and goes out to join the anti-government protests which have dominated the semi-autonomous Chinese city over the past four months.

Ricky spoke to CNN using a pseudonym on condition of anonymity. He says his double life as a pilot and a protester is exhausting, but he says it’s worth the risk to be part of what he sees as a battle to save his city.

“I (had) been acting as a so-called ‘aggressive’ protester,” Ricky says. “My role was to extinguish all the tear gas, in order to protect other citizens and protesters as well.”

But recently, Ricky says he has changed his role from a frontline protester to a first aid volunteer. The threat of losing his job loomed large following Cathay’s decision to implement stringent new rules outlawing staff from attending any protests deemed “illegal” by authorities.

“Fear is spreading,” Ricky says. “You can tell the company is being torn apart and starting to break down.”

Staff morale is at an all-time low, he says. Everybody is paranoid. “Basically, I think there’s no trust between crews and office staff as well right now, everybody (is) scared,” he says.

Cathay Pacific – an iconic Hong Kong brand – has come under scrutiny from China after months of protests in the city, which were sparked by a proposed extradition bill with China but have morphed into a broader anti-government movement. Three of the biggest marches brought more than a million people onto the streets, according to organizers. Dozens of smaller protests have been held throughout the summer, many of them turning violent, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets, and protesters throwing bricks and petrol bombs.

In mid-August, Cathay announced they would be adhering to a new directive issued by China’s Civil Aviation Administration which banned employees from working on flights in China if they supported “illegal protests.” In the same week, several days of protests at Hong Kong’s International Airport ended in chaos, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of Cathay flights. Cathay’s CEO, Rupert Hogg, and Paul Loo, the chief commercial officer stepped down a few days later.

On August 28, Cathay Pacific issued a revised version of its employee Code of Conduct, seen by CNN, which includes sections on social media posts, and encourages employees to “speak up” if they see breaches of the code as part of a “whistleblowing” policy.

Since then, Cathay staff tell CNN that dozens of people have been fired from the company.

In response to a request from CNN, Cathay Pacific said that every staff dismissal is made in accordance with relevant employment contracts. Their statement added that the company is required to follow the regulations “prescribed by the authorities in mainland China…there is no ground for compromise.”

Protesters take part in a rally to support Cathay Pacific staff in Hong Kong after some of the airline
PHOTO: PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters take part in a rally to support Cathay Pacific staff in Hong Kong after some of the airline's staff were sacked for supporting opposition to a controversal extradition bill.

Whistleblowing culture

Now, the mood at the company is “very somber,” according to another Cathay pilot, Jack, who also spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity.

“The majority are extremely supportive of the movement, but not all,” Jack says.

Those who aren’t, he adds, are now denouncing their colleagues.

“Some cabin crew support the government, and have given fellow workers’ names to the company who have talked about supporting the protests and thence been terminated,” Jack says. “The company has actively asked for whistleblowers to come forward, creating a divide amongst fellow employees.”

The result, he says, is an increasing culture of fear.

“Everyone has deleted chat groups and social media (profiles) that have any mention of the protests,” Jack says. “The cabin crew don’t even want to talk about the protests in the open, let alone admit they attend protests.”

Over the past few months, Cathay flights landing in China have also become subject to extra inspections by airport officials, Jack says.

“Checking every safety compliance of our aircraft in China is now very common,” he says. “They are intense and stressful for crew.”

Crew members are also going through extra scrutiny when they arrive in mainland China, he adds.

“Security checks have increased in intensity, personal phones have been inspected,” Jack says. “Crew now leave their phone at home or take a second ‘China’ phone to work.”

Many workers at Cathay have a name for this increasing unease: ‘white terror.’ They say it is seeping into every aspect of the business.

“In terms of the white terror, I would say it feels unsafe, it’s uncertain,” Cathay staff member Paul tells CNN, on condition of anonymity. “We wouldn’t know if it’s our last day today, because tomorrow when we come in, we may not even be able to get into the building anymore.”

The phrase ‘white terror’ dates back to the French Revolution, and is often used to describe the mass persecution of dissidents in political crackdowns, including Taiwan’s decades of martial law until 1987.

Paul believes that Cathay’s drive to encourage whistleblowing has hallmarks of Chinese-style communism.

“(It) is almost like China’s cultural revolution, you encourage people to sell out their peers,” he says. “People can take your words or take your things out of context and they can still report you.”