History will judge minimum wage decision, court rules

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am

Updated at 7.20pm:
History would have to be the judge of whether the government's refusal to consider a minimum wage for low paid workers was justified, a court ruled on Wednesday.

Mr Justice Michael Hartmann in the Court of First Instance made the observation as he dismissed an application for judicial review of the chief executive's refusal to implement a minimum wage for some of the city's lowest-paid workers.

The review was brought by cleaner Chan Noi-heung, 51, and legislator 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung. Ms Chan said her pay was so low, and conditions so bad, that the chief executive should use powers conferred on him by the Trade Boards Ordinance to establish minimum working conditions and pay for her industry.

Her argument centred around section 2(1) of the ordinance, which states: 'The Chief Executive in Council may, at any time he thinks fit ... fix minimum rates of wages for any trade in Hong Kong where he is satisfied that the amount workers are receiving is unreasonably low.'

At the time she filed the application, Ms Chan was earning just HK$3,400 a month for 26 days' work of about 10 hours each. That had to be unreasonable for the purposes of the ordinance, her counsel, Hector Pun, argued.

The government argued it was aware of the plight of Ms Chan and other workers like her, but preferred to use non-legislative measures to solve it. To do otherwise risked disturbing Hong Kong's free market system.

Mr Justice Hartmann found that even if Ms Chan's wages were unreasonably low - and he acknowledged during the hearing that her predicament was an unenviable one - the ordinance made it clear it the chief executive could act however he saw fit.

'The Ordinance, in providing for a power vested in the Chief Executive in Council to fix minimum wages, is capable of one legal meaning only,' Mr Justice Hartmann said. 'The power is a discretionary one.'