Fish sellers must accept end to rent-free ride

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 December, 2003, 12:00am

In one of Hong Kong's great anomalies, those who sell fish at the retail level have been more strictly regulated in recent years than those who sell fish at the wholesale level. While the sources, and levels, of dangerous bacteria in the water in retailers' tanks are closely monitored, many wholesalers have been able to get by with much less scrutiny - to the detriment of public health.

It took a string of cholera findings this autumn to focus the government's attention on the Aberdeen wholesale fish market, which supplies more than 40 per cent of the fish consumed in Hong Kong. Not only have the safety standards been laxly enforced at this market, the wholesalers have enjoyed rent-free use of public land for 20 years.

Now that the government has charged its semi-independent Fish Marketing Organisation with running the Aberdeen market, the 18 vendors there will have to upgrade their filtration and tank systems, as well as comply with rules against drawing water from the contaminated Aberdeen typhoon harbour. They will also have to begin paying rent at levels closer to those found at other wholesale venues - as opposed to the nominal parking fees they have been paying for use of the area built for use as a car park.

The wholesalers have put up little opposition to the water safety measures, and should be commended for their willingness to comply with rules intended to protect the public. That leaves the new rents as the main - and rather baseless - reason behind yesterday's strike against the organisation's plan to take over management of the market.

It would be difficult for these fish sellers to cry poverty. Their combined daily turnover is about HK$3 million, and they have benefited from paying virtually no rent for the past two decades. The organisation's proposed monthly charges are in line with those found at other wholesale markets, and the projected rents are still a fraction of the average sales figure for these wholesalers.

Even if more negotiation is required to find a level agreeable to both sides, the principle of having the stallholders pay rent should not be abandoned. Throughout the city, wherever private use of public land for commercial purposes is allowed, rents are returned to the public purse, and it cannot be any different with the Aberdeen market. In this case, the organisation leases from the government and sets its own rates on the stalls. The non-profit-making body returns its surpluses to a fund for the improvement of the local fishing industry, sustaining and renewing a resource we all rely on.

Bringing the Aberdeen wholesale market under greater supervision is long overdue. The potential public benefits are substantial, and the organisation should stand its ground, on both the hygiene measures and the rents.