Disney's spat with axed Hong Kong film veterans

Two veterans pursuing Hollywood giant for cancelling their work contract without notice

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 5:41am

Two veteran Hong Kong filmmakers are embroiled in a legal battle with the Walt Disney Company on the mainland after their jobs were axed.

The case is a wake-up call for Hongkongers signing labour contracts across the border where employment rights differ, lawyers warned.

Peter Tsi Ka-kei, Disney's former theatrical creative vice-president in Beijing, and Cary Cheng Kim-fung, former director of physical production in Shanghai, allege The Walt Disney Company (Shanghai) ended their fixed contracts prematurely and without consultation or appropriate compensation.

Their jobs disappeared after a restructuring of Disney's mainland operations.

Tsi said the Hollywood giant should still pay out the balance of his contract.

"It is an exclusive contract for three years and if they want to end it early they will have to pay me for the balance of the three years plus benefits," Tsi said.

Disney offered Tsi 794,424 yuan (HK$990,475) in compensation to terminate the contract. Tsi rejected this and asked Disney to continue his employment. The firm then offered Tsi a post as senior analyst with an annual salary of 550,000 yuan - less than a third of his previous pay.

Tsi declined the offer and took Disney to court, demanding about 2.8 million yuan.

But after repeated trials, the Beijing Chaoyang District People's Court ruled in July that Disney only had to pay Tsi 42,048 yuan - less than 2 per cent of what he was seeking - based on a formula under the mainland's labour contract law.

Tsi filed an appeal in November. He said yesterday that the court had asked him to settle the dispute as soon as possible, proposing a one million yuan payment, which he rejects.

"If we can't agree on a settlement, I'm prepared to go back to the court again," he said.

Cheng filed lawsuits in Shanghai, where the court also rejected his claims.

"The verdict highlights that the law needs more clarity, especially for overseas employers and expats," Ronghe Law Firm partner Gong Zhenhua said.

In 2011, Disney axed its local language film unit operating in fast-growing cinema market regions, such as Asia and Russia, two years after it was established.

The entertainment giant had planned to produce three Mandarin-language films a year with its mainland development team, but later decided against this.

A film adapted from a novel by Taiwanese author Giddens Ko, director of romance hit You Are the Apple of My Eye, was to have been produced on the mainland, but it will now be made in Taiwan.

Other films involving Hong Kong are now unlikely to be made.

Additional reporting by Daniel Ren