Hundreds of people gathered in Hong Kong to demand that Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. rehire workers who left the troubled carrier after supporting the city’s pro-democracy protests, in a case that has raised fears about dwindling free speech in the former colony.

A crowd convened on Wednesday afternoon in the city’s Central business district, not far from the headquarters of Swire Group, the airline’s largest shareholder, to push back against the commercial and political pressure Beijing is putting on companies over Hong Kong’s ongoing unrest.

The gathering, organized by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, is the latest demonstration in 12 straight weeks of sometimes violent protests, which began in opposition to a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

In recent weeks, Cathay Pacific -- which has lost at least seven employees in the turmoil and saw chief executive officer Rupert Hogg resign abruptly to take responsibility for the airline’s troubles -- has come to symbolize the danger that firms in the city face if they fall afoul of Beijing. What’s happened to Hong Kong’s flag carrier has raised concerns about whether companies that want to do business in China are upholding their employees’ rights to free speech and assembly as citizens of Hong Kong.

“It’s very obvious pressure,” Carol Ng, chairwoman of HKCTU, said at the protest. “They’re ruining people’s lives. Unless you shut up, you’ll lose your job.”

Volatile Month

The union has previously protested the dismissal of Cathay employee Rebecca Sy, former chairwoman of the flight attendants’ union of Cathay Pacific unit Cathay Dragon, over a social media post. The company said her departure had nothing to do with her union leadership or union work.

Sy, at the gathering, said her dismissal was “discrimination”by Cathay because of her union role. “It’s a serious offense,” she said.

Cathay has had a volatile month, which culminated in the naming of a new CEO on Aug. 16, a week after China imposed a swathe of demands on the airline for its workers’ participation in the protests. Some Chinese state-owned firms are boycotting the airline.

Cathay last week cautioned its employees that misuse of social-media platforms could be a breach of rules set by the Chinese regulator. Any violation will be investigated and addressed quickly, said the company, which generates about half of its revenue from operations in Hong Kong and China.

The union claims that the carrier dismissed staff due to their posts and comments on their personal social media platforms, restricting workers from expressing their freedom of speech while off duty.

The airline has said it expects “significant impact” on its revenue from August and beyond as travel demand gets affected by the protests. Both business and leisure travel into Hong Kong has “weakened substantially” and traffic from the city has started to soften, especially on short-haul routes to China and South Korea, Cathay said this month.