Egg-throwing, but no chickens on streets as trade protests at buyout
Peter So, Ng Kang-chung and Mary Ann Benitez
Chicken farmers and traders hurled eggs outside Government House and the Legislative Council building yesterday as the administration gazetted a measure to ban the keeping of live poultry overnight at wet market stalls to stem bird flu.
Some 100 people took part in the protests against government plans to buy out farmers' licences in return for payments of between HK$680,000 and HK$15 million.
Police and agriculture department officials wore protective clothing in anticipation of the protesters releasing live chickens. Instead, they appeared bearing an empty cage containing a dead chicken.
The protesters first shouted 'oppose the overnight ban, demand reasonable compensation', then hurled eggs at a banner bearing the words 'Chicken farmers strive for fair treatment'.
Earlier, they boycotted a meeting with the department.
Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok reiterated that the government was not prepared to offer much more to buy out the licences.
Farmers and wholesalers want 30 to 50 per cent more than is on offer.
Speaking at a special meeting of the Legco panel on food safety and environmental hygiene, Dr Chow said: 'I cannot overstress that the latest compensation package is about three times the amount for surrendering [poultry trade] licences [under normal circumstances] ... There is not much room for further upward adjustment.'
The government will seek approval for its offer from Legco's Finance Committee next Friday. Those who chose to stay in the live- poultry trade would 'bear the risks of any further avian influenza outbreaks in Hong Kong', the government said.
Legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip, of the League of Social Democrats, said he would put forward a resolution to block the ban on overnight stocking.
Mr Chan said: 'The measure has been pushed by the government without proper consultation with the trade. It would kill the industry.'
Speaking during the protest outside Legco, Steven Wong Wai-chuen, chairman of the Hong Kong Poultry Wholesalers and Retailers Association, said: 'If the government can increase the compensation by 30 per cent to 50 per cent, I think some 80 per cent of the retailers would accept.'
Wong Yee-chuen, secretary of the New Territories Chicken Breeders Association, said the compensation for farmers should cover the money they had invested in their businesses.
The ban on overnight stocking of live chickens will take effect on Wednesday when the city is declared bird flu-free and sales of live chickens resume. It will be tabled in the Legislative Council that day and will come into force unless enough legislators oppose it to block the measure.
Under changes to the Food Business Regulations, live chickens would be permitted in markets between 5am and 8pm; any left unsold would have to be slaughtered daily.
A spokesman for the Food and Health Bureau said: 'We hope the farmers will exercise restraint and discuss our proposal in a calm and pragmatic manner.'
It had nothing to add about the compensation offer.