LCQ10: Improving business environment for newspaper hawkers

     Following is a question by the Hon Shiu Ka-fai and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr Ko Wing-man, in the Legislative Council today (November 30):
     Recently, a group of newspaper hawkers have relayed to me that their business environment has become increasingly difficult, and pointed out that the number of newspaper stalls in Hong Kong has dropped persistently from over 2 000 in the 1990s to the present level of about 380.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) of the current number of licensed newspaper hawkers; whether new hawker licences (newspapers) were issued in the past five years; if so, of the number issued each year; if not, the reasons for that;

(2) given that, as mentioned in the report of the Subcommittee on Hawker Policy formed under the Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene of the previous term of Legislative Council, a member made the following suggestions for consideration by the Government: (i) relaxing the requirement for elderly licence holders to operate the hawker stalls in person, and (ii) allowing newspaper hawkers to sell more varieties of goods, whether the authorities will implement such suggestions; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(3) whether it will consider providing ex-gratia compensation for licensed newspaper hawkers who opt to surrender the licence; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(4) whether it will draw reference from overseas experience and study the introduction of a revitalisation scheme for newspaper stalls to improve their business environment, so as to preserve such kind of hawking activities with characteristics of local culture and heritage, and to help newspaper hawkers maintain their livelihood?

     Licensed hawkers were originally allowed to sell newspapers, magazines, periodicals and books only.  In 1990, the former Municipal Council decided to relax the policy on the commodities permitted for sale by newspaper hawkers and allowed them to also sell commodities of small size to provide convenience to the public.  Under that policy, newspaper hawkers were allowed to also sell eight commodities of small size: tissues, cigarettes, cigarette lighters, chewing gums, sweets, preserved fruits, battery cells and pens.  While the permitted size of newspaper stalls remained the same, the area used for the sale of additional commodities should not exceed 25 per cent of the stall area.
     In 2009, in response to the licensed newspaper hawkers' concern over the increase in tobacco duty that may result in income loss, as well as their urge for the Government to help them improve their business environment, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), having consulted the trade, relaxed the relevant restrictions by expanding the list of additional commodities permitted for sale from eight to 12 items, i.e. on top of the commodities already approved (i.e. tissues, cigarettes, cigarette lighters, chewing gums, sweets, preserved fruits, battery cells and pens), bottled distilled water, trinkets, lai-see packets and cell phone stored value cards, have been added to the commodity list.  The restriction on area used for the sale of additional commodities has also been relaxed by expanding the space limit from not more than 25 per cent to not more than 50 per cent of the total stall area.  In addition, licensed newspaper hawkers are allowed to display within the confines of their stalls lawful advertisements related to commodities permitted for sale without making further application. 
     My answer to the various parts of the question is as follows.
(1) Currently, there are around 420 newspaper stalls in Hong Kong.  FEHD has not issued such type of licences under normal circumstances since its establishment in 2000 and has no plan to issue new licences as such.  This is due to the fact that changes in the circumstances of society, the increase in the number of sales outlets (such as convenience stores) of newspapers and magazines, the distribution of free newspapers and fierce competition from other forms of media (in particular electronic media) have contributed to lowering the general public's demand for the provision of newspapers and magazines by on-street newspaper hawkers.  In addition, there have been diverse views of different parties in society on the environmental hygiene problems posed by on-street hawking activities.
(2) According to section 38 of the Hawker Regulation (Regulation) (Cap. 132AI), when the business of a licensee to whom a fixed pitch has been allocated is being carried on, that licensee shall, unless absent for some reasonable cause, be personally present at the pitch and conduct or superintend business there.  A licensee may also, according to section 12(1) of the Regulation, employ such number of assistants as he/she thinks necessary for the purpose of enabling him/her to carry on his/her business, but no such assistant shall engage in hawking during the absence (other than absence for reasonable cause) of the licensee from his/her pitch.  In addition, where a licensee, under conditions such as being incapacitated by illness, leaves his/her business for a period of more than eight days, he/she may appoint any person eligible to hold a hawker licence to be his/her deputy during the incapacity according to section 11 of the Regulation.  Hawker stalls take up public space and incur public resources.  The above regulations help prevent licensees from not operating their businesses in person or sub-letting their hawker stalls to others illegally.
     On the suggestion of relaxing the number of additional commodities allowed to be sold by licensed newspaper hawkers, FEHD is willing to maintain communications with the trade.  We consider that the prerequisite factors for consideration of adjustment include that newspaper stalls must maintain at the currently specified size, street obstruction and environmental nuisances problems should be prevented, the additional commodities permitted for sale should not affect public health and food safety, as well as that the space occupied for such sale should be in proper proportion.
(3) In the past, the Government implemented schemes for voluntary surrender of hawker licences in return for ex-gratia payment with a view to solving problems of passage obstruction and environmental nuisances caused by on-street hawking, and minimising the fire risks posed to residents nearby.  Those schemes did not aim at providing any form of retirement security for the licensed hawkers.  The Government currently has no plan to provide ex-gratia payment for licensed newspaper hawkers to surrender their licences.

     We respect the wish of newspaper hawkers to continue operating their newspaper stalls.  At the same time, with respect to the sustained low levels of unemployment rates in recent years and changes in the newspaper, magazine and physical print-media markets, to nourish licensed newspaper hawkers' considerations of their prospect, we are willing to liaise with relevant Government departments for providing information and assistance on employment and job retraining to those who are interested in changing jobs.
(4) The Government has been maintaining communications with the licensed newspaper hawkers to listen to their views, with a view to assisting in revitalising newspaper stalls, and improving their business environment.  Apart from the relaxation on the number of commodities permitted for sale in response to the trade's request in 2009, in mid-2013, the trade proposed installing LED monitors for publicising the commodities sold at the stalls, as well as installing Wi-Fi facilities for providing free internet to the public.  The Government accepted the suggestion in early 2014.  Participant stalls must comply with the relevant licensing requirements and conditions, ensure electricity safety of the installations, and at the same time avoid causing obstruction and nuisances to the surroundings (including pedestrians and road users).  FEHD will continue to listen to the views of the trade on their business arrangements and consider their views as appropriate.

     On one hand, the Government will continue to provide a convenient business environment for the hawking activities of licensed newspaper hawkers.  On the other hand, it also has the responsibility of regulating on-street hawking activities, maintaining good order, minimising nuisances to the environment, as well as lowering the impact on residents nearby.  The Government will continue to strike a balance between the two.  Hong Kong is a highly populated and densely developed city, and its municipal management is different from overseas cities.  We will keep in view whether there is relevant overseas experience for reference.

Ends/Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Issued at HKT 16:20