League

Happy Valley players reach deal with club over arrears

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A tentative agreement has been reached between former Happy Valley players and management over unpaid salaries totalling over $5.5 million.

A breakthrough in the case of salary arrears at Happy Valley has been reached after former players from the club met with management on Thursday. The meeting, which was mediated by the Labour Department, comes exactly one week after the players filed a formal complaint with the Department over unpaid salary.

Speaking to reporters after the one-hour meeting, Valley’s former general manager Jackal Hui, who is also owed money, announced that: “(Club boss) Chen Zhishi has agreed to transfer $350,000-400,000 a week starting next week. The arrears will take about three to four months to clear.” He added that the funds would be deposited in the bank account of Happy Valley Football Club Ltd. and that administration of the money would be handled by club director Ben Lam.

On Monday, the players held a press conference where they alleged that the club owed a grand total of $5.5 million in base salary, plus outstanding bonuses to 32 players, five coaches and five other staff members. Midfielder Lam Ngai-tong, who is the players’ point man, alleged that the players did not receive their full salary for the 2019-20 season until 14 October 2020 and that he has not received any salary since February. He added that the foreign players had been playing without payment for four months but staffers and younger players on the squad had not been paid for up to nine months.

Lam revealed on Monday that he had previously received a letter from the Mandatory Provident Funds Authority notifying him that his employer had not made any MPF contributions since December. He stated that the players would go into Thursday’s mediation and demand full payment of their salaries within two weeks, else they would not withdraw their complaint.

However, Hui admitted on Thursday that it was “impossible” for Chen to pay up in such a short period, hence, the Labour Department suggested a number of potential compromises. After Chen offered a series of counter-proposals, the two sides settled on a payment plan.

“The Labour Department told us that no matter what, (Chen) had to make some form of payment in the short term,” he said. “It’s hard to say whether we’re satisfied (with this solution) or not. Today is just talk. If we don’t get money in our hands next week, then we’ll have to call the Labour Department and do this all over again.”

As for now the money should be distributed, Hui said that he would reserve judgment until the funds are transferred into the club’s coffers. “The most important thing is getting paid,” he expressed, bluntly.

Wong (green) described switching to e-statements to hide his financial situation from his family. (Credit: Happy Valley)

Centre back Wong Ho-yin revealed that the salaries owed to younger players would be paid last. Hui admitted that this was accurate but did not have an answer as to why this was the case.

“It’s not up to me to decide,” he stated. “It’s up to Ben Lam.”

Wong described on Monday how the pandemic has been a burden on young players. “Because (18 to 23 year-old-players) form the largest group, we also form the largest batch of debt, and so the club has prioritized our salaries last,” he said, adding that even the teenagers on the squad faced financial hardship. “At one point, the balance on my bank account was down to a single digit. I had to switch to e-statements because I didn’t want my family to find out.

“All we wanted to do was play football – that’s why we never said anything. We didn’t want to find other jobs, so we had no choice but to accept it. We all knew that what management was telling the players about re-payment was just empty talk, but psychologically it had a big impact. We all asked ourselves whether there was much hope for the future.”

The centre back expressed disappointment with the Hong Kong Football Association’s handling of the situation and similar incidences of arrears in the past. “Football players are all professionals,” he said. We deserve to compensated for what we do.”

For his part, Chen, who appeared at the meeting via video conferencing, apologized to the players, according to Hui. The boss explained that the arrears were caused by the current economic situation which led to cash flow issues between his business and Happy Valley Football Club Ltd.

Chen did not attend the meeting in person as he is currently in Guangzhou to attend to business matters.

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