Barry Cheung case underlines the need to reassure public that all are equal before the law
Bosses on trial for failing to pay wages do not normally attract prominent news coverage. But if it involves a political figure like Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, the community is rightly concerned with the outcome. Not only does it have an impact on labour protection, it also affects the perception of the rule of law.
In Hong Kong, failing to pay employees on time can result in a fine of HK$350,000 and three years' imprisonment. So when Cheung's six-week jail term was quashed on appeal and his sentence reduced to 160 hours of community service, many people felt uneasy. In overturning the lower court's decision, the High Court judge disagreed that Cheung was not genuinely remorseful. She said the magistrate had considered irrelevant factors when passing the custodial sentence. She said although Cheung pleaded guilty to not paying HK$340,000 in wages to a member of staff at the Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange headed by him, his capacity as the chairman did not make him personally liable to make payments to employees.
One of the merits of Hong Kong's judicial system is that there are avenues for both the prosecution and the accused to appeal against convictions and sentencing. Decisions overturned by a higher court is not uncommon. With the trials held in open court and the rationale of the ruling fully explained, the community can judge for itself whether a particular outcome is reasonable.
There have been other cases of bosses jailed or sentenced to community service for not paying wages on time over the past few years, according to the Labour Department. Cheung's case has come under public scrutiny because he led the chief executive's campaign office and has held key posts in the Executive Council and Urban Renewal Authority. But that does not mean the benchmark for his trial should more stringent or lenient. He should be treated equally like everyone before the law. Officials should consider carefully whether an appeal is warranted. It is important that bosses do not get the message that they can walk away easily for not paying workers.