Safety first policy starts at street level

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2011, 12:00am


Roadside markets have been an integral part of Hong Kong's vibrant street culture. They continue to draw locals and tourists alike, despite growing threats from the giant shopping malls which have mushroomed in our city in recent times.

While much-loved, the outdoor stalls are notorious for poor safety and lax management. The need for improvement was highlighted by the fatal fire at Fa Yuen Street market last month in which nine residents living nearby died. It is good to see that new measures are in the pipeline to prevent further tragedies.

The cause of the blaze remains unclear. But there is no doubt the highly combustible goods stocked overnight at the stalls in front of the old tenement buildings had fuelled the raging fire. It is regrettable that the lesson from the fire in the same street last year was not learned. Belatedly, the government is seeking to clamp down on rule-breaking hawkers with a raft of measures, including revoking their licence. Under the proposal, six convictions or more within three months will result in the licence being suspended or revoked. Serious offences, such as making illegal electrical connections, sub-letting stalls and using false information to obtain a hawker licence, will mean the hawkers responsible facing immediate cancellation. These are necessary steps to enhance public safety.

Understandably, traders may find the proposals harsh. Some have threatened to go on strike or protest outside government headquarters if the proposals are not relaxed. The strong reaction shows that the rules and enforcement have been slack in the past. Hawkers are entitled to run viable businesses - but not at the expense of public safety. They must abide by the law. Stiffer penalities are needed to provide stronger deterrence, especially when the breaking of rules puts people's lives in danger. The priority must be to ensure that precious lives are not lost because of slack safety measures and that our atmospheric street markets are never again destroyed in a tragic blaze.