Action will be taken against food court operators that are "found to be errant" by the National Environment Agency, according to Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor.
Dr Khor wrote in her Facebook post on Friday (19 Oct) that the Government has been paying attention to "the concerns raised" regarding "social enterprise hawker centres," particularly "on the issues of cost and contractual terms used by operators."
Noting that "NEA is working closely with operators and hawkers to address these issues," she added: "I have asked NEA to quickly iron out the problems and to do a stock-take of the Social Enterprise model."
On top of taking operators "to task if they are found to be errant," Dr Khor said that part of the measures taken by NEA to curb unscrupulous practices among food court operators is "reviewing the contractual agreements with the view to prescribe some of the terms used by operators in these contracts."
She added: "We will continue to fine-tune the management model, to safeguard the interests of Singaporeans - patrons and hawkers - and achieve the objective of ensuring that Singaporeans have access to affordable food and hawkers can make a decent living."
Other measures, wrote Dr Khor, include "setting controls on food prices, assessing operators whose bids offer the lowest total cost to stall-holders more favourably, and ensuring that operators cannot increase stall rentals during the tenancy period."
Dr Khor reasoned that such measures are taken to "ensure that Singaporeans continue to have access to affordable food in clean environments, and that our hawkers can earn a decent living," adding that the Government had "started piloting this management model some 3 years ago, with the last 2 hawker centres only opening this year."
She further wrote: "We have started building new hawker centres to ensure residents have access to affordable food.
"Having social enterprises run 7 of our new hawker centres is one of the ways we are trying, to address the many challenges of the hawker trade such as renewal and manpower constraints, and at the same time meet the evolving dining needs of residents.
"Some flexibility is given to these enterprises to try out different ideas and innovative practices, to bring about vibrancy in our hawker centre scene, and benefit both patrons and hawkers," wrote Dr Khor.
Closure of hawker stalls paints a different picture?
The apparent closure of hawker stalls at social enterprise hawker centres paints a different, more grim picture than the one portrayed by Dr Khor.
Just less than two months ago, renowned local food critic and founder of Makansutra KF Seetoh revealed the dire predicament of the social enterprise hawker centre initiative, with at least 10 stalls out of 42 ceasing operations within only nine months at the Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre from TOC's investigation.
Mr Seetoh wrote in a blog post: "They (social enterprises) operate the new hawker centres like a hardcore commercial Food Court management system. Hence, I am seeing some issues that raises some concerns."
Stallowners at the hawker centre, which opened in Jan this year and is managed by NTUC Foodfare, feel the pressure to shut down their stalls' operations, as they are unable to afford paying the high costs, including rental and other ancillary charges imposed by NTUC Foodfare, in contrast to the low customer traffic volume they receive daily.
According to the agreements signed by the hawkers with NTUC Foodfare, there is a slew of ancillary charges amounting to more than $2,000 that the hawkers have to deal with, in addition to paying rentals, which encompass the following:
- S&CC Charges - $350 per month
- Table Cleaning Service - $550 per month
- Dishwashing Service - $850 per month
- Rental of Cashless System - $150 per month
- Food Waste Recycling Management - $40 per month
- Concept and Marketing - $300 per month
They also have to pay for common crockery and cutlery at the hawker centre, including maintenance fees such as yearly replacement and replenishment, in addition to being made to purchase cooking gas from NTUC Foodfare's own supplier. Hawkers are also made to lower the prices of their food.
At the Koufu-owned Jurong West Hawker Centre, a number of hawkers petitioned to the NEA for the removal of the 20 cents fee for each returned tray.
The contract stipulates that stallholders must take part in the “tray return with incentive system implemented by the landlord,” wherein the tenant "shall pay S$0.20 per tray issued to the tray cleaning contractor at the point of issuance.”
However, a spokesperson for the NEA said in response to the issue that stallholders were “aware of the charges involved before signing the (tenancy) agreement," adding that the NEA has asked Hawker Management to work jointly with the stallholders to resolve the matter.
NEA also maintained that the tray-return system eases the cleaning of tables, which is beneficial to both customers and stallholders, despite the protests from hawkers.
Hawker Management is a subsidiary of Koufu Group, which is founded by Mr Pang Lim (PBM), a grassroots leader at Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. He is also the Vice-Chairman of Punggol 21 CC Building Fund Committee as well as Patron of Punggol North CCC and Punggol 21 CCMC.