The chief executive does not have the discretion to avoid acting when workers are being consistently paid low wages, it was argued in the Court of Appeal yesterday.
The claim was made during a judicial review appeal by legislator Leung Kwok-hung, who is seeking a declaration that the government is bound to act when workers are being unreasonably exploited.
The previous application for a judicial review was rejected by Mr Justice Michael Hartmann in the Court of First Instance last May. It had been initiated by Mr Leung and Chan Noi-heung, a 52-year-old bus cleaner who was earning just HK$3,400 for working 10-hour days, 26 days a month.
Mr Justice Hartmann had ruled that the chief executive was not obliged by the Trade Boards Ordinance to set minimum standards of pay and conditions for certain trades if they fell below reasonable levels.
Rather, the judge said, the power conferred by the ordinance was a discretionary one.
However, Philip Dykes SC, for Mr Leung, said yesterday the discretion to not do anything to remedy the plight of low-paid workers was not an infinite one and that the government's reasons for not acting were 'bad reasons'.
It was not good enough that the administration had pledged to move to regulate pay and conditions of two sectors - cleaners and security guards - because any legislation in those areas might never see the light of day.
Ms Chan did not take part in yesterday's appeal because she was no longer able to qualify for legal aid, Mr Leung said.
The court reserved its decision.