I erred, but Sing Pao back-pay fine stays, says magistrate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 February, 2007, 12:00am

A magistrate who reviewed his own penalty on a newspaper company for non-payment of wages admitted yesterday he had made a mistake - but upheld his ruling.

The decision by Joseph To Ho-shing angered journalists at the Sing Pao Daily News whose pay had been delayed and unionists who had been helping them.

They described the penalty as 'so low that it is disgraceful' and 'encouraging employers not to pay their staff'.

Mr To fined the company HK$4,200 in Eastern Court last month for withholding HK$81,000 in wages due to three employees. Yesterday, he said there had been special circumstances behind the delay in paying them - a management reshuffle that had disrupted daily operations. He considered this made the case different from that of an average offender.

He admitted he had erred in not requesting more supporting evidence about the reorganisation from defence counsel at the earlier hearing.

The defence submitted an affidavit yesterday explaining the reshuffle. It said most of its accounting and human resources records were either mislaid, in chaos or missing.

Mr To launched the review after the sentence drew a wave of criticism.

The Labour Department is seeking advice on an appeal.

Unionist lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan called for a fixed penalty of twice the amount owed to be imposed on employers who paid late.

Unionist legislator Chan Yuen-han said the sentence 'sends a very wrong message to the employers that not paying workers is not a big deal'.

Yeung Cheung-tak, a former reporter at the newspaper, was upset that the court had put the blame on bookkeeping. 'If the newspaper owners did not authorise payment of the money, how could that be blamed on the accountants?'

Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Serenade Woo Lai-wan said: 'A company with a proper set-up should not be affected by some changes in the management to the extent that it would leave its staff unpaid.'

Barrister Jackson Poon, representing the newspaper, said the verdict was proper.