Earlier, it was reported that the recent online revelation of the sorry state of affairs at the Social Enterprise Hawker Centres has resulted in many netizens condemning social enterprise operators like NTUC Foodfare and Fei Siong Food Management of profiteering.
Makansutra founder, KF Seetoh, has revealed on his blog last week (28 Aug) that hawkers were charged with all kinds of ancillary fees including a "dubious" compulsory food inspection fee.
"The shocking facts, (just some) seen in some of the contracts, include compulsory payments for... this brazen clause that hawkers pay the management $600 a month to have them spot check their food quality and operation (in short, charge the hawkers to do what they naturally do anyway). As if they know better than the hawkers how to cook and operate," said Mr Seetoh.
The best part is if the hawker fails to pay the $600 "consulting fee" in time, he will be charged 12% interest or "such higher rate as may be determined from time to time by the Consultant" for any outstanding amount owed - aka "Ah Long" style of "O$P$" but minus the pig’s head and red paint.
Fei Siong says inspection fee optional
Fei Siong later confirmed the existence of the $600 monthly inspection fee. But Fei Siong said it was "optional". It added that the $600 service is for hawkers that "require help in professional services such as food quality and hygiene audits".
However, hawkers interviewed by the media disputed Fei Siong's assertion. They insisted that the $600 inspection fee was not optional.
"We were told about the fee in July when our contract was up. It came out of nowhere, and they told us that it is for the NEA (National Environment Agency) and quality control," said one hawker. The hawker, who did not want to be named, said he was forced to agree to the inspection fee as he wanted to continue running the stall.
Another hawker who was so disgusted by the $600 monthly inspection fee decided to stop running his stall altogether. "I was asked to continue by signing both agreements or my (hawker) licence will not be renewed. I was told I cannot opt out (of inspection service). If it is optional, why did none of the stalls opt out to reduce costs," he asked.
And the most incriminating is that the mainstream media journalist who interviewed the hawkers reported that he saw a WhatsApp message showing that Fei Siong did tell hawkers about the $600 inspection fee being made compulsory.
One hawker said, "It's like digging a hole and asking us to jump in. Then they bury us."
Fei Siong blames staff for miscommunication
Yesterday (7 Sep), Fei Siong's management came out to blame some of their staff for "mis-communicating" to the hawkers.
Fei Siong's group general manager Joe Sng clarified that the $600 inspection fee and $50 coin exchange fee are "optional". He said, "We believe it's some miscommunication from our team to hawkers."
He explained that the $600 fee was introduced in July to address concerns by the management on food portions sold by hawkers. After complaints from residents about shrinking food portions, the management introduced the $600 quality control service to address this issue, he added.
Mr Sng said that the inspection is done by Fei Siong's own in-house employees. The operations team at the hawker centre goes on patrols to look at the quality, portion and hygiene standards of the food.
"Looking at the charges as a whole, I think it is reasonable," Mr Sng told reporters. "We're doing this because we are insisting on our brand and quality. When we manage Ci Yuan, people will think of Fei Siong. If we're not doing a good job, it will affect our Fei Siong group. So on this point, we emphasize the food quality, food prices and food cleanliness regulations," he added.
But the media reported that other social enterprise operators do not charge any inspection fee even though they also conduct food quality and hygiene audits for hawkers.
Fei Siong says it imposes compulsory inspection fee only on some hawkers
However, those hawkers who are under its Entrepreneurship Programme will have to pay for the compulsory inspection fee. Under the programme, aspiring hawkers receive training, mentorship as well as financial help with the setting up of their own hawker stalls. At Ci Yuan hawker centre, 15 of the 40-odd stalls need to pay the compulsory inspection fee because they have gone through the programme.
One hawker later told the media that only this week he was informed about the inspection fee being optional. He believed it to be compulsory all along.
Another hawker, Mr Lee, said, "I'm not sure whether there were any sessions where all the stallholders were individually called to the management to explain what were the procedures, what the food quality inspection was all about. So it wasn't really communicated to us."
To tackle the miscommunication, Mr Sng said his team will "definitely improve on this area and make sure that everything is actually addressed accordingly".