Employers had better pay staff on time and in full, or they risk big fines and even jail time.
That was the message from the Court of Appeal yesterday as it increased a penalty against the Chinese-language Sing Pao Daily News by almost tenfold to HK$39,000.
The magistrate, who imposed a HK$4,200 penalty on the struggling newspaper last year, 'underrated the importance of the punctual payment of wages or termination payment', the court said.
Yesterday's ruling comes a month after the Court of Appeal heard arguments from the Justice Department, which was fighting to increase Sing Pao's fine.
The case centred on Sing Pao's failure to pay HK$81,000 in wages to three employees between February and June of 2006.
The newspaper, which has 300 staff, pleaded guilty to 11 charges of not paying wages and, in one case, a termination payment.
'It does not matter whether [Sing Pao] should be treated as a first offender, the sentences passed are manifestly inadequate,' the court said its written judgment released yesterday.
The case was heard by Mr Justice Robert Tang Ching, Mr Justice Wally Yeung Chun-kuen and Madam Justice Maria Yuen Ka-ning.
The trio of justices acknowledged that the late payment of employee wages resulted from the 'chaos' that ensued during a management shuffle at the newspaper.
'The [new] management has been taking bona fide and reasonable efforts to improve its position,' the court said, adding 'chaos in management is not a special reason for a low fine'.
'Depending on the circumstances, more substantial penalties than those imposed by us would be required.'
The judges noted that employers were legally required to pay wages within one week of them coming due.
The maximum penalty for late salary payments has been increased to HK$350,000 and three years in jail, up from HK$200,000 and one year's imprisonment.
Even if the amounts involved were not huge, it was a mistake to consider that as a mitigating factor, the court said.