Jat Sew-tong in the minimum-wage hot seat
Jat Sew-tong juggles multiple public-service roles, none of them trickier than leading the panel that sets the rate for the minimum wage
Phila Siu and Simpson Cheung
When Jat Sew-tong was made chairman of the Minimum Wage Commission in February last year, reaction was mixed.
On the one hand, it was logical for a senior counsel with years of experience serving independent bodies, such as the Independent Police Complaints Council, to take another role in public office.
On the other, workers' groups still remember Jat warning against the adverse impact of a minimum wage law, while representing the government in a judicial review.
More than 18 months later, the jury's still out. While the 46-year-old has won the applause of commission members for showing impartiality in his work, some unionists grumble that he has not allowed the commission enough time to review the minimum wage level.
Last Tuesday, commission members reached a consensus that the level should rise from HK$28 to HK$30 an hour. This proposal will soon go through the Executive Council and the Legislative Council, before coming into effect.
Back in 2007, Jat represented the government in a landmark judicial review into whether the government's refusal to implement minimum wage law was constitutional.
The review was launched by cleaner Chan Noi-heung, 51, who claimed to be paid so little working for a bus company contractor, in such bad conditions, that the chief executive should have used section 2(1) of the Trade Boards Ordinance to establish a minimum wage.
It was argued at the time that the Basic Law conferred a duty on the chief executive to intervene with a minimum wage level if workers were being unreasonably paid.
Chan's bid was unsuccessful and Jat advised the Court of First Instance that a minimum wage law could backfire.
"You may intend to protect one sector or group of workers but after you set up the minimum wage you find those people may not get work [because of the cost]," he said at the time.
It is a remark that came back to haunt him last year. His detractors from the trade unions say, if that statement represents his current stance, Jat might not make an impartial commission chairman.
Among his critics is Sze Ching-wee, spokesman of the People's Alliance for Minimum Wage, which wants a base level of HK$35 an hour.
Sze said commission meetings he had attended chaired by Jat were too short for workers to get a decent hearing, with more than 10 representatives reporting to the commission in 45 minutes.
By contrast, he said, Teresa Cheng yeuk-wah, who chaired the now dissolved Provisional Minimum Wage Commission, usually gave workers' groups 90 minutes in each meeting.
Jat has also drawn criticism for urging the commission to reach a consensus on the newly suggested minimum wage level.
After an almost six-hour meeting last Monday night to discuss the new level, the commission remained deadlocked, with workers' representatives demanding over HK$30 while their employer counterparts pushed for a figure below HK$30.
Then Jat intervened. He proposed the new level be HK$30 and asked the 12 other members to sign a consent form by 3pm the next day, which eventually they all did. A commission member, who asked not to be named, said Jat suggested HK$30 because he needed to break the impasse.
"If he had not done so, I do not know when the discussion would have ended," the member said. "He wanted us to reach a consensus … he made the right decision."
The insider said Jat had always been attentive to members' and workers' opinions on the new minimum wage level and demonstrated leadership throughout the difficult time.
Besides holding the position of chairman of the Minimum Wage Commission, Jat serves as deputy chairman of the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Appeal Board and as a part-time judge in the Court of First Instance.
But he is best known for his role as a police watchdog, having been reappointed as the chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) in May for two more years. He has held the position since 2008.
Whereas his handling of the determination of workers' minimum pay has drawn criticism, the verdict on his performance monitoring the police is generally good. A council member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described Jat as an impartial and forward-looking chairman.
"He has vision. He wants the IPCC to be a more proactive mediator to solve the conflicts between police and people in the society," he said.
In an unprecedented move, Jat brought several council members to observe police handling protesters at the annual July 1 rally. He gave some suggestions on crowd and traffic control to the police afterwards.
"He is very concerned about how the public sees the police's behaviour, especially on occasions that involve public interest and human rights. His stance is very fair. He would not show bias towards police," the member said.
During his tenure, Jat led the council from an administrative body to become a statutory body in 2009. He had a hand in drafting the IPCC ordinance, which empowers the council to make requests to the police to provide any information and explanation the council requires.
He also significantly improved the police-council relationship, the member said.
Despite holding so many public offices, Jat still practises as a senior counsel and appears in many high-profile cases. He was the coroner's officer in the Manila hostage death inquest last year, which found seven tourists and their guide were unlawfully killed by sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza in 2010.
Jat had shown good political prowess, said the council member who demanded anonymity, as he needed to chair a council comprising 24 members with different backgrounds, some with very varied political affinities.
At 36, Jat was the youngest senior counsel ever appointed in 2002. He had long been tipped to succeed Wong Yan-lung as secretary for justice in Leung Chun-ying's administration. But the post went to his friend, former Bar Association chairman Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung.
Currently Chairman of the Minimum Wage Commission and the Independent Police Complaints Council; senior counsel and recorder of the Court of First Instance at the High Court
Previously Chairman, Criminal and Law Enforcement Injuries Compensation Boards (2005–2011); chairman, Review Committee on Trust Fund for SARS (2007–2011); Deputy Judge of the Court of First Instance, High Court (2004)
Education Law graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1987; bachelor’s degree in civil law, University of Oxford, 1989
Personal Married with two daughters