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September 3rd, 2009:

Unions see red over enforcing smoking ban

Ng Yuk-hang, SCMP

More than a dozen unions have pledged to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department that they will enforce the smoking ban, its chief said yesterday, though union leaders disputed that claim.

Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene Cheuk Wing-hing said that he had met the heads of 13 of the department’s unions, representing more than 5,400 civil servants, and that all leaders had said they would implement the law. The department has 16 unions.

His claim comes after seven representatives from the department’s two staff unions marched to the Legislative Council’s complaints division on Tuesday to file a complaint about being made to enforce the ban. A union leader present at yesterday’s meeting with Cheuk said that some unions had made clear their opposition towards enforcing the ban.

But Cheuk said that it was only “individual groups” who were unwilling to perform their new duty.

“Civil servants in their right mind will implement the new law,” he said.

A failure to perform duties could lead to disciplinary action or even termination of employment.

The smoking ban was extended on Tuesday. Among the new provisions, 700 staff from the department, 2,200 from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and 430 from the Housing Department are responsible for handing out fixed-penalty tickets of HK$1,500 to those who smoke in places under their management.

Wong Wah-hing, chairman of the hawker control team sub-union at the Government Frontline Employees’ Union, said that a number of unions had told Cheuk that they were against the smoking ban. “We have too many things to do and do not have enough manpower,” he said.

Li Mei-siu, chairwoman of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s Staff Rights Union, which also expressed unwillingness to perform the new duty, was not invited to the meeting.

Days before the ban was extended, Li demanded an increase of manpower and subsidies to assist in performing the extra task.

Cheuk said yesterday that such demands were “not up to the spirit of the times” and “would not win acceptance from citizens”.

“We cannot agree on increasing manpower, especially when we are talking about slimming the civil service at this time,” he said.

He said there were 104 wet markets and cooked-food centres, so increasing staffing would mean a boost of several hundred people.

“The public should not be misled by a group with unknown membership,” he said.

Li said her union represented about 90 staff, but they were voicing concerns for over 200 staff, who in a survey done last year expressed worries over personal safety in the course of enforcing the smoking ban.

The department gave verbal warnings yesterday to offenders, but did not issue any fixed-penalty tickets. Cheuk said it was because both staff and citizens needed time to adjust to the new law, and that “enforcement would be stepped up in about a month”.

The leisure department had given 435 verbal warnings as of 5pm yesterday. Its head, Betty Fung Ching Suk-yee, said that enforcement had been smooth. She hoped that staff would be “co-operative” and active in enforcing the new law.

The Tobacco Control Office issued 14 tickets yesterday. The Housing Department issued none.