Ms Lam’s Death Inquest Concluded Coroner’s Court Deems Tragedy Avoidable HKPTU Calls for Improvement on Current Mechanism

HKPTU News Reporter

TWGHs Leo Tung-hai LEE Primary School teacher Lam Lai-tong fell to death on campus in 2019. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) unprecedentedly request the opening of a death inquest as a labour union and appointed a team of lawyers to restore the truth as well as avoid tragedies in the future. The Coroner’s Court declared Lam’s death was suicide on 29th January. The Coroner mentioned had the principal been neutral and object, and had someone stood up for Lam, the tragedy could have been avoided.

HKPTU legal representative pointed out in the closing statement the two major causes of the tragedy were the poor management and attitude of Law Yuen-yee, the principal at the time, as well as loopholes in the existing complaint mechanism. As the labour union for teachers, the HKPTU proposes the following improvements.

Policies Needed to Prevent Workplace Bullying
Appointment of Principals Must Consider Communication Skills

In the inquest, numerous teachers pointed out that Law showed no respect for teachers as shown by her repeated humiliations and scolding. Lam was bullied by Law for years. The last straw was the arrangement for exchange activities in Macau, where Law was particularly harsh, threatened Lam to resign or she would lose her provident fund. As a result, Lam suffered from a breakdown. In view of the incident, the HKPTU proposes policies should be lined out and legislative proposals should be considered to prevent staff members from being bullied, including the vicarious liability the employers should bear for workplace bullying. As far as appointment of principals is concerned, criteria should include respect, care, and communication skills while on-the-job training should also be provided.

The Coroner mentioned explicitly that school management team should respect and care for their colleagues. She also pointed out had any management member stood up for Lam, instead of letting all responsibility fall on her shoulders, the tragedy could have been avoided. HKPTU president Fung Wai-wah said, ‘The tragedy is a reminder that colleagues should offer assistance whenever workplace bullying happens.’ Vice-president Ip Kin-yuen added that he hoped school management team would become more cautious of the words they use and consider the feelings of colleagues, especially those who are troubled by emotional illnesses.

Strengthen Incorporated Management Committee (IMC)’s Supervisory Role and Improve Communication

The stakeholder survey filled out by teachers annually showed that the score for “Principal’s professional leadership” has been steadily dropping, which reflects the teachers’ dissatisfaction with Law’s leadership. The Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (TWGH) Education Division has also received a number of anonymous complaints about Law. Yet, the agenda of the IMC is drafted by the principal. If the principal does not bring forward the survey results or complaints to the IMC, its members of the IMC will not be informed, let alone follow up. In other words, the IMC loses its function to oversee school administration. The HKPTU suggests the communication between teachers and the IMC should be strengthened. All IMC members should meet with teaching staff at least once a year to understand teachers’ opinions and feelings. In addition, communication channels should be established for teachers to get in touch with the school supervisor and IMC members. Teacher manager in the IMC should also assume a stronger role.

Refine Complaint Mechanism to Protect Complainants’ Privacy

The TWGH Education Division might appear to have a working complaint mechanism, but Lam’s attempt to seek help from the TWGH headquarters just one day before her suicide was blatantly ignored. The staff member who met with Lam did not consider Lam’s seeking of help as a complaint and did not follow the complaint mechanism. The staff member also ignored confidential principle by calling Law for follow-up actions. The Coroner said such practice is puzzling. The HKPTU suggests a definition of “complaints” to be included in the complaint mechanism. Staff members must also explicitly inform the complainants in what nature and how the matters will be handled. A written agreement must be obtained before the complaints may be disclosed.

Improve Emotional Support and Practise Equal Opportunities

Lam once suffered from depression, but had received no support from the school at all. School management lacks sensitivity to employees illness. In fact, the Disability Discrimination Ordinance includes mental and emotional illnesses as disabilities. The HKPTU proposes the Education Bureau, sponsoring bodies, and IMCs to comprehensively put policies in accordance with the school administration guidelines into practice, including providing regular trainings, in prevention of disability discrimination happening in workplace. The Education Bureau should also allocate more resources to emotional support services.

Many teachers who testified said Lam was a passionate teacher who cared about her students. The HKPTU expresses its deep regrets and sorrow for her passing as well as the hope the death inquest has done Lam’s justice. The HKPTU also sends regards to Lam’s family. The HKPTU will follow up in later sessions with the sponsoring body and the Education Bureau.