HKT was notified of a government inspection of its Lai Chi Kok Exchange at least five days in advance and had asked staff to ‘tidy up’, a leaked internal email obtained by FactWire has revealed, raising fresh questions on the effectiveness of lease enforcement by the Lands Department.
The leak comes on the heels of FactWire’s revelation on Thursday that at least six of the telecom company’s customer service centres located in telephone exchanges – including the one in Lai Chi Kok – had been operating in violation of land leases for as long as seven years.
In an email response on 7 February, the Lands Department told FactWire that it had arranged an onsite inspection of the Lai Chi Kok premises with the company after officers of the Kowloon West District Lands Office were denied entry in a previous visit.
But it has emerged that, on the same day, HKT staff also received an internal email, titled ‘Site Inespection (sic) for DLO’, alerting them of an imminent visit scheduled for 12 February at 10am by the District Lands Office (DLO).
The email states that HKT’s portfolio management team has conducted a pre-visit the day before and staff are required to make preparations according to an attached document, including needing ‘Lee Sir’ to ensure ‘blue labels’ affixed on equipment were removed before the government inspection.
The staff were also told to take photos of the completed preparations and that the management might do a second check before 9 February.
Under the current land lease of Lai Chi Kok Exchange, HKT is only permitted to operate a telephone exchange and specified ancillary facilities on the site.
However, visit by FactWire has found that HKT was operating call centres in the building, including a telesales call centre on the second floor, and on the third floor, a mobile call centre, where its front door was marked with the logos of CSL and 1010, the two mobile network brands owned by HKT.
The call centres in Lai Chi Kok Exchange are several times larger than the customer service centre on the ground floor, according to a former call centre employee, who added the offices were responsible for selling broadband and Now TV products as well as handling customer contracts.
In 2008, PCCW, the parent company of HKT, had previously asked for permission from the Town Planning Board to operate an office for its mobile business, the Office of the Telecommunications Authority stated at the time that mobile network service was unrelated to the operation of telephone exchanges.
Uses not specified in the lease would require approval from the board, before making any temporary waiver applications to the District Lands Office.
Meanwhile, FactWire has also learnt that officers from the Kowloon West District Lands Office have visited PCCW’s Lai Chi Kok Engineering Centre, which is adjacent to its telephone exchange, yesterday.
HKT was again notified of this inspection, according to another HKT employee.
Around six to seven HKT management staff visited the engineering centre on Thursday afternoon to supervise preparation work, including covering the CSL’s logo at the front door of an office with posters and removing other items related to the mobile business, the source said.
The Lands Department did not respond to FactWire’s enquiries on yesterday’s inspection, but a spokesperson had confirmed on Thursday that the customer service centre in Lai Chi Kok Exchange was operating in breach of land lease conditions.
Timeline: How FactWire’s Investigation into Lai Chi Kok Exchange Unfolded
Visit by FactWire reporters finds that HKT has been using the ground floor as a customer service centre, second and third floors as telesales call centres, and fifth and sixth floors as contractors’ offices.
25 January & 30 January 2018
FactWire asks the Lands Department on whether the operations of seven PCCW telephone exchanges, including the one in Lai Chi Kok, are in breach of land lease conditions
7 February 2018
The Lands Department replies that their officers were unable to enter the premises and have issued a letter to the leaseholder to arrange a site inspection
7 February 2018
In an internal email, HKT notifies the staff at Lai Chi Kok Exchange of a scheduled site inspection by the District Lands Office on 12 February, adding that the portfolio management team has already conducted a pre-visit and that staff are required to ‘tidy up’ and take photos afterwards. The management may also do a second check before 9 February.
11 February 2018
HKT orders contractor staff not to come back to the office at the telephone exchange on 12 February – the day of the site inspection
12 March 2018
FactWire asks the Lands Department again whether there are land lease breaches in Lai Chi Kok Exchange and if the leaseholder has applied for any waivers. The department did not respond to the enquiry.
15 March 2018
After breaking a story on breaches in HKT’s customer service centres, FactWire learns that the company has been notified of a government inspection scheduled for the next day and has immediately sent management staff to supervise preparation work, including removal of items unrelated to its landline business. Contractor staff are also told not to come back to work the next day.
Evening, 15 March 2018
The Lands Department says it has inspected the premises and found that HKT customer service centre on the ground floor was operating in breach of land lease conditions. It will issue a warning letter to the leaseholder.
16 March 2018
Officers from the District Lands Office visit Lai Chi Kok Engineering Centre for inspection
(Source: Lands Department, informants)