They claim breach of contract and want time off in lieu of on-call shifts Thousands of jail guards and other correctional services officers are owed the equivalent of $2 billion in compensation days because the government broke their employment contract, a court heard yesterday. The claim was made by Gerard McCoy, SC, who is representing 3,722 officers - 53 per cent of the Correctional Services Department's entire custodial disciplinary staff - in a breach of employment contract claim against the government. The case centres around the requirement that some officers must remain on call at penal institutions for 101/2 hours after the end of their shift, Mr McCoy said in his opening address before Mr Justice Michael Hartmann in the Court of First Instance. They are paid only the 'trifling and insulting' amount of $123 for the on-call shift, he said. The officers want time off in lieu of the shift, which is officially termed 'overnight on-call duty'. They also want an overtime allowance in accordance with the Civil Service Regulations. 'If the claim was quantified in terms of monetary value ... it would come to $2 billion for the six years back to the time of the filing of the writ,' he told the court. Mr McCoy said officers on the afternoon shift were required to sleep at quarters or in the vicinity of the prisons for overnight on-call duty before beginning the next morning's shift. The 'on-call' classification means officially officers are not entitled to more pay. But Mr McCoy said his clients claim it is a 'stand-by' shift, which would entitle them to higher compensation - either rates set under the Disciplined Services Overtime Allowance, which are about $1,000 a night, or time off in lieu. Counsel representing the government, Eldred Tabachnik, QC, defended the on-call system, which was introduced in 1973 after major riots at Stanley Prison. He said the special overnight on-call allowance, which was originally $50, was introduced to compensate officers for the separation from their families and homes. He told the court that officers were allowed to leave as long as they could return within 15 minutes of being alerted. As an example, he said officers working at Victoria Prison could leave and go to Lan Kwai Fong. He added that the officers' quarters had games rooms and sporting facilities. It was 'not good to pay compensation ... as if they had been working' when officers could spend the night playing mahjong with their friends, he said. 'The place where gambling is permitted can not be the place of work for the staff of the department.' The hearing continues today.