Sharp rise in conviction of bosses for late wages

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am

The number of employers convicted of delaying wage payments to their staff has soared since a team of former police officers began tracking down defaulters, including directors who spent company money on mainland mistresses, domestic helpers and concert tickets.

There were 69 such convictions last year, the first full year since the former officers were engaged, compared to eight the previous year - an eightfold increase.

The number has continued to rise this year, Labour Department figures show, with 88 convictions between January and September, 138 per cent up on the same period last year.

Six company directors were imprisoned or given suspended jail sentences between January last year and September this year.

Employment claims investigation division senior officer Lam Sau-ching said evidence collection and intelligence gathering had been greatly strengthened since 2005.

'We have hired six ex-police officers as investigation officers, including a former senior superintendent who has been appointed as our investigation adviser,' Ms Lam said.

Under the Employment Ordinance, any employer who delays wage payment wilfully or without a reasonable excuse is subject to a maximum penalty of HK$350,000 and three years' imprisonment.

The department has also organised more training programmes for their law enforcement officers which has contributed to the significant increase in successful prosecutions.

Ms Lam said some company directors spent company funds for personal use, leaving workers unpaid, and investigators had to trace where the money had gone. 'We have come across company directors who gave money from company accounts to mistresses, while some use company funds to pay domestic helpers and buy concert tickets,' she said.

'Investigators had to interview company accountants and employees who were familiar with their bosses' personal spending to trace the missing company funds which should be used to pay employees' wages.'

Ms Lam said it was important to prove these company directors deliberately used the money that should be spent on wages to ensure successful prosecutions.

The team of investigators sometimes has to operate like a missing persons' unit at the police force, as some company directors are very good at hiding from the department when it is looking into pay disputes.

'Our investigators might have to trace landlords who rent offices to the company directors being investigated or their business partners to get some clues regarding the whereabouts of the company directors,' she said.

But the directors were sometimes not prosecuted if the workers decided against taking the matter to court. 'Workers may give up the idea of filing a lawsuit after their bosses agree to pay them back,' she said.

'The concerned company director might pay the workers after our investigators approach them and persuade them to be responsible employers.

'In one case, there was no prosecution as the company director had died,' she said.

Ms Lam said in some cases the employees may never have seen the company directors because they were hired by managers or other lower-ranked staff.