Poverty should not be a death sentence

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 June, 2011, 12:00am


When you are poor, there are many ways you can be exploited, even in a developed economy like Hong Kong. A widespread form of exploitation turned deadly last week when a fire ripped through an old tenement building in Ma Tau Wai and killed four people.

A mother and her two young sons perished in the blaze. And Young Post junior reporter and poetry contributor Summer Tse Yan-yee, 18, died while shielding her four-year-old sister from the fire and smoke as they made their escape. A star student, there was no doubt that Summer would have gone on to university and succeeded in whatever she chose to pursue in life. Instead, this talented and elegant young woman - who had already overcome the many hardships life had dealt her and her family - was cut down in the prime of her life.

Two families were destroyed. Why? They lived in an unsafe, rundown tenement building with subdivided flats. Often such tiny units, created with scant regard to safety and hygiene, are all many poor families can afford. Landlords love these units because they can squeeze out more rent than by leasing an undivided flat. Often, when costed per square foot, a subdivided unit is more expensive than a luxury apartment in an elite neighbourhood. Such exploitation of poor tenants is a disgrace. Government officials say they are actively addressing the problem. And what is their solution? Toughening regulations and monitoring? Outlawing the practice of unsafe subdivided flats? No, the government will speed up redevelopment of old neighbourhoods. Developers will benefit, but not necessarily the families living there.

It is high time officials regulated flat subdivision and held landlords criminally liable when serious accidents like this tragedy happen.