Hawkers shunted aside for 'progress'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2011, 12:00am

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Already squeezed by convenience stores on almost every corner, traditional roadside news-stands are being forced off their decades-old pitches - and in some cases out of business - by red tape and 'urban renewal'.

More shop owners - in front of which the news-stands ply their trade - are submitting plans for emergency exits and disabled access that require the news-stands to move.

As this trend gathers pace, the number of licensed newspaper stands has dropped by 16 per cent in just five years - from 670 stalls city-wide in 2006 to 558 last year.

Many of the displaced stand owners are left in limbo, being forced to operate at licensed temporary locations. These temporary licences must be renewed monthly and then operators are dragged into a web of officialdom as they argue over a new, permanent licence.

In some cases, the impasse lasts for years, driving the operator out of business.

New permanent locations need approval from seven or eight government departments, making the chances of getting approval for a desired spot extremely difficult.

The Coalition of Hong Kong Newspaper and Magazine Merchants has this year been trying to negotiate permanent pitches for four displaced hawkers who have been using temporary pitches for up to seven years. The coalition is also handling three other cases facing the same fate.

Coalition chairman Liu Sair-ching said the cases were only 'the tip of the iceberg' because many hawkers tended to keep their problems to themselves.

'The different government departments may all have different concerns, and when six departments do not have objections to the new location but just one does, the application will not be approved,' Liu said. He said moving away from their original neighbourhoods meant losing regular clients.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, which is responsible for issuing these licences, admits that hawker-related regulations are inadequate to protect their rights to remain in their spots because they often clash with building or renovation plans aimed at upgrading a neighbourhood.

'Hawker licences and the rules that govern their operation are a product of history - regulations are outdated and inadequate for dealing with the rapid changes in Hong Kong,' said Wong Ka-wai, senior superintendent of the department's hawker and market division.

Liu criticised the government for approving plans to alter buildings that end up displacing newsstands.

'Building owners tell the department about their approved plans to renovate,' he said. 'They ask the department to temporarily move the news-stands that are in front of their stores. But most of these turn out to be permanent relocations because the renovation work includes an emergency exit or something where the news-stands used to be.

'The way the government is dealing with these cases is unacceptable. It feels like - even with a licence - we can still be uprooted and stripped of our security at any time.'

According to Wong, all fixed-pitch hawker licences include a clause requiring the owner to vacate their stall within 15 days 'if the government needs the space'.

'The government has the power [to ask the hawkers to leave],' said Eric Cheung Tat-ming, assistant professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, referring to the 15-day notice period.

'The possibility of legal intervention is limited and depends on the case. But the courts can only determine where the action is legal or not; they cannot say whether the situation is correct.'

Liu said hawkers were beign treated unfairly because of outdated hawker-licensing and management rules and the fact that the interests of developers and building owners were being put first.

He urged the government to update the regulations, saying most hawkers would be willing to move if they were guaranteed a new permanent licence in a location where they could get enough business to survive.

Wong agreed hawkers had it tough. 'The streets are getting busier, so finding suitable places for hawkers to earn a decent living without causing an obstruction is difficult,' he said. Wong conceded the rules could be hard to follow and the department had to look at individual cases.