A series of recent incidents has aroused public concern over the government’s policy toward street vendors and flea markets.
One such incident was an operation by authorities to dismantle a dawn market in North Point.
How beneficial are such markets to our community?
I went to a night market the other night, and got into a chat with a vendor who sells second-hand clothes.
He told me that although he only makes HK$10-20 a night, he enjoys meeting people in the neighborhood and sharing used items with those who may need them. Otherwise, the clothes will end up in landfills, he said.
What the vendor said made me reflect on the government’s poverty alleviation strategy; it seems we have overlooked a crucial point.
In the past, many believed the key to eradicating poverty is to increase the income of the underprivileged. If they can’t find any job or are unfit for work, then the government should offer them cash allowances instead.
There’s no doubt that increasing their income or providing them with financial aid will help, but they are not the only means to alleviate poverty.
Cash allowances don’t necessarily bring about dignity and sense of satisfaction, which are important in a person’s life.
In fact, many poor people want to harness their own talents and skills to be able to integrate into the community and economy in their own way.
Given its low entry threshold, the flea market provides an ideal platform for poor people to make a living and build their social network so they can truly feel they are part of the community.
According to a recent study by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, many in the grassroots agree that flea markets can create jobs and offer a wider variety of choices for consumers.
Such markets can also serve as a venue for families and neighbors to hang out and get together, thereby fostering cohesion in the community.
It doesn’t take any enormous investment from the government for flea markets to flourish and play a more active role in the community economy.
Rather, it requires cutting red tape and facilitating government assistance for people looking for a location and applying for licenses.
Unfortunately, what the administration has been doing in recent years seems to be the complete opposite and many vendors in our flea markets are struggling to survive.
While the government has been taking a tough stance on unlicensed street vendors, against whom almost 29,000 charges are filed every year, it hasn’t shown leniency in the case of flea markets either.
Bureaucratic practices often stand in the way when non-governmental organizations are applying for use of vacant government land to run weekend flea markets; the official approval process, which often lacks transparency, may take months to complete.
This basically strangles any civilian effort to foster economic activities at the community level.
In a document submitted to the Legislative Council in March this year, the Food and Hygiene Bureau proposed a new policy direction regarding the development of flea markets, and recognized their contribution to our diversified economy.
Secretary Ko Wing-man also pledged that the government will facilitate the opening of more flea markets and night markets across the city.
I am delighted to see that our government is at last showing some support.
Hopefully, the government can adopt a new mindset and consider the facilitation of grassroots participation in our economy as an indispensable part of the poverty alleviation program.
The article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 3.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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