Legco panel says scheme would sound death knell for live-chicken industry A $264 million government plan to buy out poultry farmers and wholesalers to prevent another bird-flu outbreak failed to get past the first legislative hurdle yesterday. Legco's food safety and environmental hygiene panel rejected the funding application to compensate poultry workers who surrender their licences. Panel chairman Fred Li Wah-ming made the announcement at the end of a 41/2 hour meeting. The ultimate decision will be made by the Finance Committee, which includes most Legco members, and the Democrats have yet to decide their position. If there are not enough votes to swing legislators, the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau is unlikely to force the issue on the committee. Panel deputy chairman Wong Yung-kan, of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, of the Liberal Party, and unionist Wong Kwok-hing said the scheme would sound the death knell for the live-chicken industry and leave poultry workers without financial protection. Mr Li said so far Hong Kong had been spared the bird flu outbreaks that had ravaged Vietnam and Thailand. He said the government plan to halve the 3.7 million live chickens available in local farms was not a good policy. 'It swings back and forth,' he said. 'Unless the government gives some assurance that these workers in wholesale, transport and retail markets will be fully covered and will be helped to find jobs, it is difficult for us to support the plan.' The government has said reducing the supply of chickens would make it easier to conduct a mass culling in case of an outbreak. But Mr Li said the scheme would leave poultry workers jobless. Panel members supported the concerns voiced at yesterday's meeting by about 40 poultry farmers, wholesalers and worker representatives, who said the government was killing their trade. Ng Chi-kin, chairman of the Kowloon Poultry Laan Merchants Association, said 'the industry is being dismembered bit by bit'. Lee Yuet, of the Poultry Trade Workers Union, said ageing poultry workers would find it difficult to find other jobs under a 'cosmetic retraining programme'. As of last month, 226 retailers had surrendered their licences, a 28 per cent drop in retail capacity. The government plans to set up five slaughterhouses, beginning with a site next to the slaughtering facilities for ducks and geese in the Western Wholesale Food Market.