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NEA should look into why dishwashing charges for hawkers cost so much

by Lim Jialiang

On Dishwashing – One of the most perplexing costs that I have seen in the new social enterprise hawker centres is their monthly costs for dishwashing. They range around $800-$1100 a month, and that's before GST. Think of how much revenue a store has to generate before that kind of cost made sense.

In older NEA hawker centres, they are built without centralised washing points. This is because not all stores have the same kind of washing load - unlike a food court, who is owned by one operator, it makes no sense to derive economies of scale (this seems to be favourite phrase these days).

For hawker centres, those who have more low-volume sales shouldn't be subsidising those who have high volume sales. Those who sell food that is more for takeaways also have to pay that fixed cost. Even for table-cleaning charges, which is the norm in hawker centres here, A distinction is also made for those who sell drinks/takeaways food - they pay a smaller cost.

There are quite a few companies out there that provide this service, and they basically integrate logistics with heavy mechanisation. I know of one company that operates a fully automated dishwashing system - staff are only in charge of loading dirty cutlery and dishes into a gargantuan system of conveyor belts, sterilising points and dishwashing machines. Most importantly, their costs are extremely reasonable. No cutlery? They'll loan it at a deposit.

This is unlike the social enterprise hawker centres who impose on hawkers plate purchasing costs. I bring this up because there should be serious enquires on NEA's part on who these companies are and why do they cost so much. These contracts should be audited by competitiveness.

However, these encapsulate the broader,  mistaken impression that hawker trade is not efficient or productive enough. Do you honestly think that small, lean operations that do a job 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, will not be efficient in doing things? If people aren't washing dishes in machines, it's because the costs don't make sense.

The picture taken above, is at a popular fish store in Eunos (I will take the exact location to my grave because it's amazing and I have to queue long enough already) who has recently engaged services for a dishwashing company. Cutlery comes in those blue boxes. Once they are done with them, they loaded the boxes up with dirty dishes. The logistics team collects it and sends it back in the morning. It works for them because they can move hundreds of bowls in a day. But they are an exception, a very small minority of hawkers. Most stores, instead, do their dishwashing during off-peak hours.

Not all centralised dishwashing services are created equal, and not all hawker stores need these services. Finally, let's call a spade a spade and recognise that the attendant charges, like a SingTel phone bill, are the result of a very lackadaisical attitude towards managing social enterprise management companies. Let us not confuse nebulous anti-competitiveness with productivity.

This article was first published on Lim Jialiang's Facebook page and reproduced with permission.