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Construction Workplace Discrimination: Experiences of ethnic minority operatives in Hong Kong construction sites

Hong Kong, China, mixed method study, September 2014

The construction industry, traditionally dominated by blue collar, male workers, has long been criticised for its poor tolerance for cultural diversity. This study explores the experiences of racial discrimination and harassment by ethnic minority (EM) construction workers in Hong Kong, with a focus on what construction workplaces can do to promote a more socially inclusive work environment for EM workers.

Construction is one of the faster growing industries in Hong Kong (HK). Recently, the HK government has identified the creation of major infrastructure projects as a means of stimulating further economic growth, and therefore, of strategic importance. As a result, the HK construction industry has seen a significant growth in the demand for construction workers. This demand has been experienced however, alongside global labour market issues including an ageing workforce and a global war for talent, thus making it difficult for construction workplaces to fill operative roles.  Construction workplaces have, therefore, become increasingly reliant on foreign construction labourers, and in particular, Nepalese and Pakistani employees.

As the industry becomes increasingly global, and attracts more ethnically diverse workers, there is a need for construction workplaces to take action to prevent and manage racial discrimination and to promote a socially inclusive workplace.

This research, conducted by Professors Wong and Lin (Hong Kong Polytechnic University) explored EM workers’ experience of racial discrimination and harassment in the HK construction context as well as how EM workers cope with these experiences. Drawing on survey data from 100 EM construction workers, the researchers found that direct and indirect discrimination and harassment do occur in HK construction sites. Further, the workers said that these experiences lead to mental stress, physical ill health and productivity losses.

A focus group with EM workers made it clear that workers often cope with these experiences by withdrawing into themselves and missing work.  EM workers reported limiting their social contact to those workers with a similar cultural background and avoiding those who do not, which represent broader impacts of racial discrimination in these workplaces.

A focus group with industry professionals, including supervisors and managers, revealed several workplace specific strategies that organisations could implement to address these issues. According to the authors, these included providing language support for EM workers, ensuring safety procedures are clearly and accurately translated, and providing culturally sensitive workplace policies and practices such as leave for cultural or religious reasons.


This research aimed to explore racial harassment and discrimination amongst ethnic minorities in the construction industry.


The study employed a mixed method approach. First, the researchers administered a quantitative survey to assess workers’ experiences of racial discrimination, harassment, and racial inequality on construction sites. Second, the researchers recruited a sample of (1) EM workers and (2) industry professionals, including supervisors, contractors, and leaders in the construction industry to participate in one of two focus groups. Focus groups explored how EM workers cope with discriminative experiences and general impacts on workers, supervisors, contractors, and leaders in the construction industry.

The survey was provided to workers from four large construction sites in HK between October 2012 and February 2013. 100 employees participated in the survey.  This included 89 males and 11 females from a range of countries, including Nepal, Pakistan, India, Thailand and the Philippines.  Job roles ranged from general site labourers (81%) to plant operators (7% and security guards (6%). An additional seven EM workers and five industry professionals (managers, supervisors) participated in one of two focus groups (one group for EM workers and one group for professional workers).


The mixed method study revealed three key findings:

1. Workers’ experienced both direct and indirect discrimination and harassment on HK construction sites. Workers perceived that these experiences led to mental stress, physical ill health and reduced productivity

2. EM workers employed a number of strategies to cope with these experiences including withdrawing into themselves and avoiding those of a different cultural or religious background

3. Industry professionals suggested several workplace specific strategies that organisations could implement to address these issues.

1. Direct and indirect discrimination experiences in HK construction sites and their impact on mental and physical health and productivity

Workers identified that they experienced racist jokes, name calling, offensive gestures and racist materials.  These experiences were particularly common amongst Nepalese workers. Interestingly, despite these experiences, workers indicated that they were satisfied with the multicultural working environment in the HK construction industry. However, they also reported that HK workplaces tended to ignore specific cultural needs, for example, not allowing workers time off to attend religious or cultural ceremonies.  Some also felt that they were “cheated” out of their employment rights;  and excluded from training opportunities.

Workers reported several discriminative practices, including racially motivated jokes and humour, and complaints about the smell of their food and body odour.  Language barriers were also experienced as a significant challenge by EM workers; for example, some supervisors were reported to give instructions in Chinese to non-Chinese speaking workers rather than speaking in English - a common language across workers.

2. Coping strategies

In response to discriminative experiences, EM workers were likely to report sticking with people from a similar cultural or religious backgrounds and beliefs and avoiding those from other groups. Workers also tended to withdraw socially or miss work in response to negative experiences. They reported that racial discrimination led to feelings of mental stress, physical ill-health and productivity issues. EM workers avoided taking legal action as a result of discriminatory practices.

The results from this small sample align with a large body of literature demonstrating that discriminative work practices can lead to mental and physical health problems.  Further, low status workers such as those working in low skilled jobs and EM workers, are disproportionately exposed to adverse working conditions. 

3. Organisational strategies for addressing these issues

The study offered a number of ways in which construction workplaces can create more culturally tolerant and inclusive work environments from the perspective of industry leaders. These included:

  • Review the current legislation that protect EM workers against discrimination in the construction industry
  • Implement the principle of equal treatment of people, regardless of diverse cultural backgrounds
  • Develop equal opportunity policies, including those which support the provision of multi-cultural awareness and recognition of leave for cultural or ceremonial purposes
  • Support EM workers to overcome language barriers
  • Ensure that all safety policies and procedures are communicated in ways that can be understood by a diverse workforce
  • Translate work procedures clearly and accurately to all workers to ensure workers are able to work safely.


The current study reports evidence that EM groups in the construction industry are exposed to racial discrimination and harassment at work. Further, the study indicated that EM operatives may suffer high levels of mental distress, potentially due to the experience of discrimination and harassment. 

Whilst this study was conducted amongst construction workers in an Asian context, the topic also has relevance in Australia.  Around 1 million workers in Australia (or 10% of the working population) are employed in the construction industry (ABS, 2009). As at 2008, construction accounted for around 7% of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product.   Australia, like many other industrialised countries, employs a significant number of non-Australian born workers, including those from EM groups.  Approx. 6% of EM workers are employed in the construction industry. There is already evidence to suggest that exposure to poor psychosocial working conditions including discrimination and harassment, as well as other factors such as excessive workload, low job control and long working hours, can lead to worsening mental health over time. Further, ethnic minority groups are among those most likely to work in such environments, as well as those least likely to report such practices.

This article suggests that construction workplaces should make deliberate efforts to promote an environment that is inclusive of individuals from diverse backgrounds.  This should include implementing strategies to prevent and manage both direct and indirect forms of racial discrimination and harassment.  This includes, supporting workers to overcome language barriers, implementing culturally sensitive workplace policies, including allowing employees to take leave for cultural or religious reasons, and ensuring safety procedures are interpreted to EM workers.

To read the full article, see Wong, J.K.W. and Lin, A.H.Q. (2014),"Construction workplace discrimination ", Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, Vol. 21 Iss 4 pp. 403 – 420