Food guru KF Seetoh from Makansutra wrote an open letter to Senior Minister of State Dr Amy Khor on Tuesday (9 Oct) imploring her to preserve Singapore's public hawker centres. In essence, Mr Seetoh is against the government appointing a 3rd-party, the so-called "social enterprise" operator, to run publicly funded hawker centres.
In his letter, Mr Seetoh also shared more unfair practices adopted by some of the Social Enterprise Hawker Centre (SEHC) operators against hawkers.
In particular, he highlighted some of the high-handed tactics adopted by one SEHC operator after going through the agreement between the operator and a hawker. The operator would penalize the hawker if the hawker quit his stall half-way, making him pay the remaining months of rent and fees until a new tenant, subjected to the approval of the operator, is found.
The one-sided contract also stated that the operator is entitled to "at any time" and "from time to time" increase stall rentals and ancillary charges. There is little the hawker can do once he signs the agreement.
SEHC operator belongs to Koufu owned by Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC grassroots leader Pang Lim
Yesterday (11 Oct), Todayonline reported that the SEHC involved is actually the new Jurong West Hawker Centre, run by Hawker Management Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of Koufu Group. Koufu in fact, just went public recently in Jul this year. Koufu is founded by Mr Pang Lim (PBM), a grassroots leader at Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. He is the Vice-Chairman of Punggol 21 CC Building Fund Committee as well as Patron of Punggol North CCC and Punggol 21 CCMC.
Todayonline also reported other dubious tactics employed by the Koufu's subsidiary, forcing the hawkers to subsidize the tray-return monies. It was reported that hawkers at Jurong West Hawker Centre are the ones paying for patrons to return their trays. In other words, unlike other hawker centres where the patrons would pay a small deposit per tray and get their refunds when they return the trays, the patrons at Jurong West Hawker Centre do not pay for the trays. When they return the trays, they will get $0.20 for each tray. Koufu then charges the hawkers accordingly.
The hawkers said sometimes they even had arguments with patrons over trays due to the tray returning system imposed by Koufu. For example, if a customer uses three trays for three dishes that could be placed on one tray, the stallholder has to fork out 60 cents in total, a hawker pointed out.
One hawker also told Todayonline that they had to pay up to $900 a month for tray charges, on top of the monthly rental and the ancillary charges imposed by Koufu. He gave a breakdown of the costs:
Rent - $2,140
Dish washing - $1,100
Cash machine rental - $300
Tray return - $900
Service fee - $250
Furthermore, according to Mr Seetoh, Koufu's subsidairy would also charge hawkers for contract drafts whenever it updates management terms in the agreement.
Hawkers launch petition but NEA says hawkers aware of charges before signing agreement
Feeling the pinch, some hawkers at Jurong West Hawker Centre have petitioned the National Environment Agency (NEA) for the operator to remove the fee of 20 cents for each returned tray.
The NEA said that it has received “feedback” from some stallholders at Jurong West Hawker Centre. Stallholders were “aware of the charges involved before signing the (tenancy) agreement” with Hawker Management, said a spokesperson from NEA.
The agency has asked Hawker Management to work with the stallholders to address any concerns on this matter. It added that effective tray-return systems make the cleaning of tables easier and faster, which is beneficial to both customers and stallholders.
In the contract, indeed, it is stated that stallholders must take part in the “tray return with incentive system implemented by the landlord”, where the tenant "shall pay S$0.20 / tray issued to the tray cleaning contractor at the point of issuance”:
Koufu's subsidiary, in reply to Todayonline, said the tray return system was a joint effort by stallholders and the management.
“The initiative was implemented to achieve two objectives — to collectively encourage customers to return their used trays and thereby creating a cleaner and more comfortable environment; and to increase productivity within the hawker centre and provide more affordable food options for the community,” it added.
NEA said it is looking into the matter.