Opinion: HK court ruling in favour of expat lesbian is ‘a start’

News that a  British lesbian currently living in Hong Kong had won what was described as a “landmark” appeal in her years-long efforts to obtain a spousal visa in Hong Kong yesterday was, as reported, seen by some observers of the LGBT scheme as potentially significant.

Not just for other such individuals who are prevented from living with their partners in overseas jurisdictions by visa restrictions and similar rules, but also for those multi-national companies that employ lesbian, gay, bi- and trans-sexual staff whom they would like to be able to send abroad.

Here, Paul Thompson, the Hong Kong-based founder of LGBT Capital and chairman of Equality Wealth, two established financial services businesses that cater for the LGBT market, considers yesterday’s ruling, and what it may mean for companies with LGBT employees.

For many international businesses, relocating key employees is a key component in running their global operations. But for many years, relocating LGBT employees was not something most could even consider, as many people were not “open” in the workplace, and relocating that “single” employee was sometimes more problematic than relocating someone with a family.

These days, though, as enlightened companies understand the benefit of having employees who are able to bring “their whole selves” to their workplace, the desire to be able to move talented LGBT staff abroad when the need arises is bringing pressure to bear on those jurisdictions that, till now, have not been receptive to  LGBT individuals coming to live and work.

This pressure should be welcomed.

With LGBT diversity being generally accepted as good for business as well as being the right thing to do, companies should not have to take into account whether an employee is LGBT or not when a relocation is being considered. All they should need to be taking into account is whether the individual in question is the best person for the job; and whether they are likely to be happy in their new role.

Developments in LGBT rights, including partnership and marriage equality in the US and many European countries, should have made things more straightforward, and in many places they are.

After all, estimates are that people of an LGBT persuasion may account for as much as 5% to 10% of the population, and have a global aggregated spending power of more than US$3trn.

But as yesterday’s ruling in Hong Kong showed, some countries are still not there yet, although, as this case also showed, even in these places progress is being made.

In this case, an appellate court wisely saw that efforts to prevent a British expat woman from being able to obtain a spousal visa because her partner, also an expatriate, was also a woman, was a form of “indirect discrimination”.

‘Landmark decision’

It was indeed, as some sources have noted, a landmark decision, because Hong Kong is rightly seen as an important and dynamic gateway to China and Asia, and for this reason, multi-national companies need to be able to post employees here.

It simply cannot be that these companies must select their Asia staff on the basis of their sexual preferences – or that their staff, keen to advance their careers, should have to live an incomplete life for as long as their overseas posting lasts, in order to satisfy the out-dated mores of their host nation.

Ambitious employees at the top of their profession will obviously want to come to Hong Kong, if the opportunity arises,  with their spouse and family if they are lucky enough to have them; and in 2017, it simply shouldn’t matter whether that spouse is of the same sex.

That it still does, unfortunately – as the case of “QT v the director of immigration” has shown – means significant challenges for employers, in many key financial services markets like Hong Kong, remain.

I personally know of many people who relocated to Hong Kong only to discover that their partner has no right to stay. In many cases this has meant the partner must come and go on a tourist visa, with no legal identity in Hong Kong.

Often this results in the relocated employee giving up their posting and returning home, as their partner cannot work or even stay here permanently.

Yesterday’s ruling in this case, therefore, is truly a great step in the right direction for Hong Kong. Let us hope that it will mean companies looking to send employees here will no longer have to limit themselves to choosing the best “straight” person for the job!

In the meantime, many multi-national companies still need to consider adapting their HR policies to better accommodate same-sex and transgender employees and partners.

Because one thing we see in our work is that many partners of LGBT employees still don’t have access to the same employee benefits – including insurance and health care – as their colleagues.

Particularly as more same-sex couples are having children, this is becoming an increasingly-important issue.

Greater consideration also has to be given to locally-hired LGBT employees, as well as those employees who come from countries where same sex partnerships are still not deemed acceptable.

Countries like Hong Kong and Singapore, which are both vying to be the “global hub of Asia” when it comes to business, need to wake up to the fact that when it comes to policies affecting the LGBT community, we’re in the 21st Century now.

And if they really want the world to regard them as Asia’s hub, they cannot continue to shut out the “non-traditional” portion of that outside world, just as the companies that operate in these markets need also to ensure that they’re providing adequate support and benefits to their non-traditional employees and their partners.

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