Five retired Cathay Pacific flight attendants who were not given bonuses or ex gratia payments when the airline recorded unprecedented losses in 2017 have sued their former employer for HK$175,000 (S$30,873).
Opening a two-day trial at the Labour Tribunal, claimant Candice Tung Woon-hing on Wednesday complained that Cathay Pacific had unfairly breached a long-standing practice when it quietly excluded flight attendants who had just retired for a few months from year-end payments.
According to Tung, such payments were issued annually - except in 2001 - over the past three decades, even to flight attendants who had retired before December 31 of each year.
The court heard that in December 2017, all staff members from Level A to C, made up mostly of frontline employees who included cabin crew, were each given HK$35,000 following a company announcement.
But that did not include the five claimants, who had just retired from more than 30 years of service after July that year.
"We felt very shocked," Tung said on behalf of the group. "They were essentially exploiting us. I believe that amounted to discrimination."
Their claims - for HK$35,000 each - were supported by Vera Wu Yee-mei, chairwoman of Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union, who joined the company in June 1995.
"What happened to these five claimants had never happened before," Wu testified.
But Cathay countered that there had never been a binding contractual policy to give out year-end bonuses as it depended on the business environment, the company's financial status and the need to reward, retain and attract talent.
Its human resources manager, who would only give her surname Ho, stressed the company had absolute discretion in granting and refusing payments as well the right to change at anytime the terms and conditions of offering.
Richard Knight, head of performance and reward at Cathay, explained that year-end bonuses were only offered when the company was making satisfactory profits.
That did not apply in 2017 when the airline recorded an unprecedented loss of HK$4.3 billion.
"It was a really bad year financially," Knight said.Claimants Candice Tung (left) and Ada Ho leaving the Labour Tribunal. PHOTO: South China Morning Post
But he revealed that senior management recognised there was a need to retain and motivate staff as the company embarked on a three-year restructuring exercise, so they approached the board to offer the ex gratia payments.
"There was a very limited pot of money," he said. "There were no profits. They had to argue with shareholders for some extra money."
The company then developed internal guidelines introducing specific eligibility requirements for the HK$35,000, limiting beneficiaries to staff members from Level A to C who were still on the payroll by December 31, he said.
"Was it the intention to include the claimants?" deputy presiding officer Jeremy Law asked.
"It wasn't the intention," Knight replied.
The trial continues on Thursday.
The five claimants are Tung, Sandra Ng Lai-fun, Ada Ho Ching-yee, Yetta Yiu Suk-yee and Au Yuen-fun.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.