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Cathay Pacific threatens staff with sack after Beijing draws line on Hong Kong protests

  • Chief executive Rupert Hogg says staff who ‘support or participate in illegal protests’ would face disciplinary action that ‘may include termination of employment’
  • Airline’s shares down 4.37 per cent on Monday morning to lowest level in 10 years, despite it complying with orders on Friday from China’s aviation authority
Cathay Pacific moved over the weekend to comply with new orders from China’s aviation authority. Photo: Bloomberg
Cathay Pacific moved over the weekend to comply with new orders from China’s aviation authority. Photo: Bloomberg
Cathay Pacific has warned that it would sack staff taking part in illegal protests in Hong Kong, saying it would take a “zero tolerance” approach, as its shares slumped to their lowest level in 10 years in morning trading on Monday.
In a note to staff on Monday, chief executive Rupert Hogg said staff who “support or participate in illegal protests” would face disciplinary action that “could be serious and may include termination of employment”.

His warning indicated an escalation by the company, under pressure to crack down on employees after China’s civil aviation regulator said on Friday that airline staff supporting the Hong Kong protests would be barred from flights going to, from or through mainland China.

“We are all obliged to abide by law at all times,” Hogg said. “Cathay Pacific Group has a zero-tolerance approach to illegal activities. Specifically, in the current context, there will be disciplinary consequences for employees who support or participate in illegal protests. These consequences could be serious and may include termination of employment.”

By noon in Hong Kong, the stock had fallen 4.37 per cent to HK$9.85 (US$1.26), its lowest level since June 2009. Losses dragged the carrier’s parent company Swire Pacific down 5.4 per cent to HK$77.50, making it the worst performer on Hong Kong’s stock market during morning trading.

This was the lowest price since October 2018 for Swire, which owns 45 per cent of the airline. Air China, which owns 22.7 per cent of Cathay, also fell 1.53 per cent in Hong

On Friday, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) told Hong Kong’s flagship carrier that any staff members who had taken part in what it called “illegal protests”, “violent actions” and “overly radical activities” would not be allowed to fly to or from the mainland, in a first warning shot at a Hong Kong-based corporate giant.

The CAAC also said that the airline would have to submit identification details of all crew operating all services using mainland China airspace, and that flights with unapproved crew lists would be barred. It gave the airline until Thursday to submit a detailed plan to improve its procedures.

Anti-extradition bill protesters join a sit-in protest at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday. Photo: Reuters
Anti-extradition bill protesters join a sit-in protest at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

Cathay Pacific had earlier said it would not stop staff members from taking part in demonstrations.

On Wednesday, Cathay Pacific chairman John Slosar said the company would not rein in staff for openly supporting the protests. “We certainly wouldn’t dream of telling them what they have to think about something,” Slosar said.

But in his second statement in two days in relations to the CAAC’s sanctions, Hogg said the “actions and words” of staff outside of work hours could have a “significant effect on the company”, adding that the actions of a few of Cathay’s 34,000 employees would be seen as a company position.

He also asked staff to not “support or participate” in the illegal protest at the airport, saying the carrier was concerned that the protests could become disorderly and violent.

No flights by Cathay Pacific, nor by its subsidiaries Cathay Dragon or HK Express, were delayed or cancelled on Saturday or Sunday, the company said.

The CAAC’s move was widely seen as a clear warning to Hong Kong’s business community to toe Beijing’s line to pressure ongoing anti-government protests in the city that have been taking place for over two months.

Despite the airline acting over the weekend to comply with the rules, Chinese state media continued to put pressure on the company.

Global Times, a tabloid associated with Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, said on Sunday the airline had still not allayed all concerns despite its adjustments to comply with the ruling.

Carrie Lam’s remarks about Beijing’s sovereignty ‘add fuel to the fire’, analysts warn

“These are only small steps [showing] that Cathay Pacific is heading towards the right direction, and their sincerity will need to be tested over time,” the tabloid said in an opinion article on Sunday.

It said 2,000 company staff joined citywide strikes last Monday, and cited the case of a pilot who was arrested and charged with rioting during a demonstration on July 28.

“Cathay Pacific has touched on this behaviour lightly, which has a huge impact on the trust the industry and the public have towards the company,” the article said.

State broadcaster CCTV published a short video on Weibo on Monday morning of its anchor issuing further warnings to the airline, saying there were reports of staff continuing to join “illegal gatherings” and asking tourists not to go to Hong Kong.

“If this continues, it’s not a matter of whether or not people would still want to come to Hong Kong, but whether they would still want to be on your airline,” Kang Hui said in a one-minute video.

“Let me send a friendly reminder: one would not be in trouble had one not asked for it,” Kang said, in Mandarin and then in English, translating the popular Chinese internet meme phrase “No zuo no die” and claiming some Cathay Pacific staff pretended not to understand Mandarin. Cantonese is the dominant language in Hong Kong.

Elsewhere, the company announced that two of its airport employees

had been sacked

for leaking passenger information about a Hong Kong police soccer team who had been on a flight to mainland China. It has also suspended the pilot who was among 44 people charged with rioting on July 28.

Although the company does not clearly specify its country-by-country performance, China and Hong Kong produced half of all its 2018 revenue – HK$57 billion of a total of HK$111 billion. A fifth of all the carrier’s flight are