Show compassion when enforcing hawking laws

Arrest of a 75-year-old woman for selling HK$1 worth of cardboard underlines the need for clearer rules to guide frontline officers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 2:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 2:01am

As if arresting a 75-year-old who made a meagre HK$1 for selling cardboard without a hawker licence wasn’t absurd enough, the authorities went further still and forced the cash-strapped woman to pay HK$30 in bail, leaving her with just HK$4 to get home. The incident instantly became the talk of the town, prompting more than 15,000 people to sign an online petition that forced the government to drop the charge ahead of the court hearing and to review enforcement guidelines. This is yet another example of overly rigid enforcement by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

Arrested for making HK$1, elderly cardboard seller wins hearts, minds and the all-clear

The woman, surnamed Chu, gave a few pieces of cardboard to a domestic helper for a dollar in Central on June 11. She immediately found herself surrounded by six officers and was later charged with hawking without a licence. Officials only made a U-turn following the public outcry.

Chu could apply for comprehensive social security payment; instead, she collects cardboard on the streets to supplement her meagre earnings from a part-time cleaning job. She is just one of the many elderly citizens who prefer standing on their own feet.

The suggestion that the department is targeting self-reliant individuals like Chu is therefore disturbing. A concern group said scavengers were also subject to similar ordeals. A 60-year-old cardboard seller in Central has reportedly been arrested three times recently. The department officers showed no mercy, he said.

Government officers constantly target cardboard collectors, making their lives even harder, concern group says

The approach does not square with the department’s guidelines, which say that when the activity does not involve prohibited or restricted items such as food and is not obstructing major roads or areas of high pedestrian flow, prosecution will be taken only when a verbal warning is ignored. Officers are also expected to exercise powers “in a reasonable manner” if elderly or disabled hawkers are involved. The government has rightly pledged to consider how to ensure that enforcement actions will be seen as taking into account reason and compassion. This is not easy for frontline officers, who have to weigh responsibility and discretionary powers carefully. That makes clear enforcement guidelines all the more important.